Signa, by Ouida

Chapter 16.

IT was three in the afternoon, owing to accident and delay, when Bruno, dazzled, stupefied, cold and fasting, stumbled on his first steps on the stones of Rome.

There was a sort of awe for him in Rome.

He had been taught that it was there the great St. Peter always lived, and held the keys of heaven and hell. That was all. Other thoughts of Rome he had none, and even that died out of him in the engrossing dread that possessed him of all he should learn here of the boy.

He got down, and on his feet, and stared blandly across the square, and felt blind and bewildered with that sense of strangeness which overpowers beyond all other sense the ignorant and the untravelled who alight in an unknown place.

What had he come for? — he did not know.

He came on the impulse which his brother had set alight in him; the impulse to save Signa.

The men and women who had come with him in that dreary journey went all their several ways with noise and tumult, quarrelling and difficulty. Bruno stood stock still, like a lost dog, in the midst of the uproar; and it soon had ceased.

“Where are you going?” said a man to him, who had a horse and vehicle, and thought that he might need both, as other travellers did.

Bruno stared at him; and, without answering, felt to make sure that both his belt and knife were safe.

“You will be sick and sorry not to have taken me,” said the driver, irritated with the churlishness of silence. “There is not another beast to be hired under its worth in scudi all over the city to‐day: not one.”

“What is there amiss in the city?” he asked. He was hungry, and felt a dizzy stupor in his head.

The driver laughed outright.

“Oh, Tuscan gaby, where are your wits? Is it not Shrove Tuesday?”

“I forgot,” said Bruno, and stood still, wondering where he had best go.

“Are you come to get a job on the Campagna?” said the man, knowing him to be a peasant, and guessing his province by his accent. “You are too early. They come in by troops in another month; labourers like you.”

Bruno moved away mechanically; as the lost dog will when some one teases it.

It had been a mild and golden day, and the sun was now setting.

The mists had been left with the marshes, and the clouds had blown away over the sea; the dark, lowering, windy weather had been left in the north; and over Rome there was a flood of amber radiant light.

The sunshine of Rome has a great influence in it.

It makes happiness an ecstacy. It makes pain a despair.

Bruno moved away in it; a lofty, erect, dark figure, with his brown cloak on one shoulder.

He wished the light was not so bright. The grey sullen mists of the pools and the shores had hurt him less.

Very soon his wish was fulfilled. The sun sank, and night fell.

He had not tasted food or drink for fifteen hours.

He saw a winehouse in a crooked street; he went in and took a draught and ate a bit of bread and a few mushrooms; then he went out again, the stupor of his brain clearing a little as his body was refreshed.

It was already quite dark.

Undying Petrus dwelt here, and kept the keys of eternal life. So he had always been told. He did not doubt it.

It made the city mysterious and half divine to him. That was all. Otherwise he was scarcely sensible of the difference of place.

His mind was absorbed in his errand.

Bruno would have moved unabashed and unconscious through all the palaces of the world; and now, when he thought that he was where the Regent of Christ dwelt, he said to himself:

“If I could see him — I would tell him to shut me out for ever, for ever; it will not matter for me; so that only the boy may go to God.”

To Bruno heaven and hell were as two visible worlds: had not he seen them, one golden as morning, the other lurid as a tempestuous night, painted by great Orgagna, who had been suffered to behold them, as in a vision, and prefigure them for the warning of men?

He went through the lonely streets pondering within himself. Their solemnity was welcome to him, and soothed the jagged, weary, impatient bitterness of his mind.

A girl laughed above, in an open lattice behind a grating. He wondered to hear her. It seemed to him as if the city were a mighty grave in which sinners waited for judgment.

He wondered to hear her. It seemed to him as if the city were a mighty grave in which sinners waited for judgment.

He remembered hearing from the priests and preachers church tales of the martyrs who had perished here for their faith. He envied them such death.

If only they would take him so, and bind him and burn him; — if by such means he could save the boy.

Those men were happy. They made their bond with God, and paid down their brief, fiery pang, and got eternal life by it — or so they thought.

Bruno envied them. He could only see the soul he loved drift into hell; and could do nothing.

He walked on, seeing the greatness round him as in a dream. The mind of the man was larger than the shell in which it had been imprisoned all its years.

He was ignorant; his brain had never gone out from its narrow confines of pastoral knowledge and of daily cares. But in it there was a certain unawakened power which, under other habits and under other modes of life, might have become strength and dignity of thought.

As it was, his brain, dumb, fettered, confused, confined, was only pain to him; and no more use than the lion’s force is to the lion born in an iron cage, and doomed to live and die in one.

It was quite night when he left the wine‐house and walked onward.

It was all dark. For Rome is ill lit at all times, and the streets are narrow and the walls are high, and the moonbeams only shine in here and there, save when the moon is at her full, and the white glory of her is spread everywhere like a phosphorescent sea.

It was all dark as Bruno passed along its unknown ways, his hand upon his knife. He made his way slowly, with a curious sense of something greater than himself, and greater than the world that he had known around him.

A vast stillness and obscurity reigned everywhere, but ever and again there loomed out from the gloom a thing of Rome, such as only Rome can give: a colossal statue, sombre and crowned, with the orb of the world at its feet; a saint with gigantic crozier raised on high to awe into subjection the rulers of the universe; a mighty form tiared and robed in travertine that gleamed to a red pale gold in the light of some solitary lamp; a huge column fitted for the grip of Samson; a dusky arch with wild grasses grow‐ ing in its keystone, or a white fountain with its fantastic play of foam cast up in silver on the black background of towering walls or endless stairways. These and such as these gleamed ever and again out from the universal shadow. There was a vague nameless sense of immensity around. These statues were Titans frozen into stone; the S. Agnese was the full‐breasted, fleet‐footed daughter of a god; this naked Gregorius had the brow and the loins of banished Zeus.

These are all Rome gives at night — some prophet with outstretched arms raised in imprecation; some stern stone face of an Assyrian lion; some Sphynx with cold and dreaming eyes that hold the mysteries of the lost races in them; some Christian martyr with white marble limbs wound about a cross of bronze; some Latin god with thyrsus broken in his hand and wine‐cup filled with dust and ashes; — these and their like gleam here and there, parted by great breadths of shadow and gloom of impenetrable darkness, where any crime may have been wrought and any woe been suffered.

A strange perpetual sense of power and of measureless empire is still upon the air; here all the passions and all the forces of humanity were once at their fullest and their fiercest; here giants moved and breathed and worked and fought and had their being; and in their turn died — died mortal‐men also at the last, but to the last also in their sinew and substance, by their legacy and tradition, giants even in the silence and the impotence of Death.

Bruno going through the night, and seeing these, was moved to a vague fear such as even a bold man may feel entering a haunted house at midnight and alone.

Rome had been once the throne of the world, and was now the refuge of God.

That was all he knew. But it was enough.

He wandered without knowing where he went, or whither he ought to go.

Used to a fairy city, he was lost and bewildered in this city of giants.

Until he had set foot in Rome it had never come to his mind that the boy might be hard to find.

“They must know of him at the Theatre of Apollo,” he said to himself; and tried to reach the theatre; and missed his way; and came on what seemed to him most beautiful and most appalling — a great arena strewn with fallen pillars and mutilated friezes, and with a carved column that alone stood erect, and seemed to tower to the clouds, and deep stone ways in which stagnant black water glittered; and all around there was an intense stillness; and above all there rose a mountain as it seemed, of marble and brick and sculpture; and over all was the silvery mist of the new‐risen moon and wide sombre veils of shadow.

It was the Forum of Trajan.

And the mountain of stone was the back of the Capitol.

Bruno, knowing nothing, thought it a vast sepulchre, whose tombs and temples had been overthrown in war.

No living mortal met his eye. It seemed to him that spirits alone could have their dwelling there.

All the thousands and tens of thousands were away in the feasting of the grandest day of car‐ nival; gathered together by the Pinclan Hill. They had told him so; but he forgot it as he went.

The stillness, the vastness, the sadness of the mighty wilderness of stone in which he wandered oppressed him. He had been reared on the mountain side, amidst the waving seas of corn, the fresh fragrance of woods, the width of the green valleys, and the smell of the wet wind‐tossed pines.

This maze of brick, this labyrinth of broken marble, was wonderful to him, and terrible to him. When he saw a green curled palm rising over the granite of a palace bastion he could have stretched his arms to it as to a friend.

Nature — living and laughing, Nature, eternal and ever triumphant everywhere else over all the works of men — Nature is cowed and hushed in Rome.

Men have cast such weight of stone upon her breasts that their milk is dry.

She has crept slowly, as a bereaved childless creature might, over this vast battle‐ground, and has covered with a green mantle the nakedness of the innumerable slain; but she is stilled and sterile in her office. She lies barren in the plains, and forsakes the city where the people so long ago denied her, and turned to worship their gods of bronze and clay.

He mounted the steep stairway and entered by it the grand granite desolation that saw Rienzi fall.

It was all deserted.

Through an arch where the moonrays shone he saw a colossal river‐god lying dark and prostrate. The cold, damp, lofty courts were all silent. The bronze Augustus sat alone; gazing over Rome. Castor and Pollux caught their great horses back on a field of stone. The stairways seemed measureless and endless, shelving into the dim unknown depths of the silent city.

Bruno shuddered.

He was a brave man amidst mad cattle, furies of the flood, bare knives unsheathed in feud, or any bodily peril. But here he was stupefied and afraid.

Here; alone with this great past, of which he knew nothing.

He doffed his hat to the bronze emperor erect there in his lonely grandeur.

Was it a statue or a spectre? He did not know. The air had grown very cold. On the vast steps which had felt the feet of millions the moonbeams were shining.

When he saw at last a human form he was thankful.

He spoke aloud.

“Where am I? — tell me.”

The ascending shadow answered him.

“This is the Capitol.”

“Who is that? — who reigns in the midst?”

“Men called him Augustus — lord of the world.”

“And those two that struggle with the horses?”

“They are the Gemini. They ride in the heavens too. You may see them any night amongst the stars from tulip time to vintage.”

Bruno did not understand.

Yet he felt that the words suited the place better than any bare bald answer, and he had sense enough to know that no common man spoke so.

“Do they ride with the stars?” he said, doubtfully, half believing.

“Yes. All the summer long.”

“Are they stronger than Argol?”

“What is Argol?”

“A star of evil: so they say.”

“Then be sure they are not. Evil is always stronger than good.”

Bruno made the sign of the cross, and stood silent, looking at the brothers straining at their steeds.

The ascending figure, pausing too, looked at him. With his stature, his unconscious dignity of posture, his oval, olive face, his broad brows, his dark, fathomless gaze, he had a grandeur in him, though he had followed his oxen and trodden the ploughed earth all his days.

The other looked at him from head to foot.

“Do you fear that star — your Argol?”

“It is to be feared,” said Bruno.

“Is it in your horoscope?”

“What is that?”

“It is a fate, read by the stars.”

“Is there such a thing?”

“No doubt. How else should anyone have known that some stars are good, some evil?”

“Where are the living people?”

“You must go onward for them. Take that way. You will find them by tens of thousands.”

“What do they do there?”

“They are at the Mocoletti.”

“What is that?”

“Fire‐worship. In Egypt it was of old the Feast of Lamps.”

“But they worship Christ in Rome.”

“A few did, eighteen hundred years ago,” said the other, with a smile, and ascended the rest of the stairs.

“Is he the Evil One?” thought Bruno, with a chill, as he saw the smile in the moonlight.

The stranger passed away into the empty space of the Capitol, and Bruno took his way through the darkness, leaving the heaven‐born Gemini to wrestle with their coursers.

He moved always in the direction which the other had pointed to him. For a time all was still, sombre, and solitary; frowning masses of masonry ascending to the skies on either side, with here and there the slender feathers of a palm east up against the silver of the night.

Then he came to a great battlemented brown pile, and to a continuous living stream of tumultuous people, and stood still with utter amaze:— for what he saw was a winding way of fire, which seemed to be without end, as though all the fireflies of the old eastern world and the new south‐west had met there and there held revel. Clouds of starry little flames were moving everywhere; the earth was all alive with them, and the air; a river of light stretched away, away, away, with cupolas and stairs and domes all ablaze in golden coruscations in the far distance; whilst all along the channel of fire clusters and plumes of sparks flew and fought and whirled and sprang aloft, as though all the million stars of heaven had dropped to the lower air, and were in battle.

Bruno stood and gazed entranced, and doubting his own sight.

It was only the great game of the Mocoletti. But in his own province Carnival knows not this crown and glory of the high feast day; and he had never heard of it, and could not comprehend the torrent of light that rushed down the long and crowded Corso towards him, and the mad uproar of shouts and cries that deafened him like the roar of cannon.

For a few moments he stood and gazed aghast at the sight, whilst at the end of the river of flame the great round domes of the church, raised to lay Nero’s wandering soul at rest, gleamed like globes of light in the fiery rain of a thousand rockets. Then, as the fantastic cars and chariots passed him, their gay combatants armed with blazing wands, and as the grotesque masks and harlequins and dominoes flew by him, striking with their long tapers right and left, he saw that it was some feast of carnival unknown to him, and tried to turn away from it, and gain the solitude of some side street. For his heart was heavy and his brain was dull; and the tumult and the mirth and the madness were hateful to him.

But to escape from such a crowd was no longer possible. The Moccosi once lit at Ave Maria, the Romans are mad till the last light dies. He was wedged in a multitude, whose numbers were swelled with every moment; the frightened horses, the great allegorical cars, the throngs of masqueraders, the striking, dancing, nodding, flaming tapers, all hemmed him in, and pushed him upward almost off his feet, and bore him on by the force of the screaming and rapturous mob. The utmost he could do was to defend his face from blows, and his clothes from the flying fires. Against his will, he was carried along, higher and higher, under the crowded casements and balconies, nearer to the domes and the obelisks and the fountains glowing to gold and crimson in the feast of fire.

When he at last got breathing space and rest a moment, and leaned against an open doorway, to watch this strange fantastic war of flames, that seemed to make the very stones and walls and winds and clouds alive with it, he rested opposite a wide open window, with a gallery running underneath it, and draped with gold cloths and furs and silken stuffs, more richly than any of those near it. A woman leaned her arms on the balustrade, and gazed down on the sea of lights below, and with a long white wand, alight at the end, fought the lights underneath her, and laughed as she moved it for the thousandth time, burning still, despite all efforts from the street to blow it out or strike it from her hand.

She laughed as a little child might have done at the sport they made her; and many, looking upward, forgot their warfare and let her vanquish them, because, in the flickering, fitful light of the countless flames, she looked so lovely, leaning there, as if the fire were burning in her and shining through her, as its flame in an alabaster lamp.

Bruno looked up, as all the others did, seeing how the chariots paused and the faces were upturned, and the wands were lowered under this one casement.

He knew her in an instant: the wanton whose likeness Palma had flung under the water and stoned; the child who had sunned her snowy little limbs in the long grass amongst the daisies and the wind‐flowers of Giovoli.

At her feet lay a youth, whose hands held a change of tapers ready to tip her wand afresh should she be vanquished; every now and then he gave her a knot of roses or lilies of the valley that she asked for; always he was looking upward to her face.

The river of fire ran unheeded by him; the feast of folly had its wild way unshared by him; he saw only her; — as the hot, changeful light shone over her laughing eyes and mouth, and her shining throat, whiter than the pearls that clasped it.

He was screened from the sight of the multitude by the draperies of the balustrade; but as he raised himself on his arm to give her flowers, Bruno’s gaze found him.

Bruno’s hand went to the knife in his waistbelt; and, with a curse, thrust it back again.

It could not reach the smiling thing throned up there on high.

He wished that he had never burned that deadly fair weapon which had been broken up and destroyed in his haste.

His eyes devoured her with that hate which is deep as lava and as ruthless; — he thought of one day when he had seen her a little, white, new‐born thing, lying at her mother’s toil‐worn breast; and poor, improvident Sandro, gleeful and rueful at another branch to his roof‐tree, and another mouth to feed, had said —

“Such a white child! — so white! Heaven send her a white soul, too. We will bring her up to the cloister life. When one has so many, one can spare one to God!”

So Sandro had said:— a faulty man, but loving his children and hating shame.

And the white child was here.

Some roses fell through from the rails of her balcony — winter roses — fair and rare. A boy, whose rags were covered with a goatskin, and who wore a mask of Bacchus, grinning from ear to ear, as though life were one long wine‐song, caught them eagerly, as boys do all such things in carnival; then, seeing where they came from, threw them under his feet and stamped on them and spit on their scattered leaves.

Bruno saw, and felt for a coin to toward the lad that hated her.

“Why do you hate her?” he asked.

“She let her horse lame my brother a month ago; he, a little child; and she laughed and drove on, saying never a word, and Lili with both feet jammed and bleeding in the dust. If she were a princess one would not mind; but they say she was a beggar, like ourselves.”

Bruno gave him money.

“Does she live up yonder? — tell me.”

“No. She is there to see. I will show you her house when the sport is all over. You hate her too?”

Bruno was silent.

He was watching the flame of her wand as it played, seeming to lick her cheek and her throat, while the shadows above enfolded her softly like a cloud. There were many faces round her; one was the face which had been like the face of the sleeping Endymion, but there were no dreams there now; it was haggard with the exhaustion of passion, hectic, wasted, with all the beautiful youthfulness of it burned away, as the bloom of a flower is consumed in the heat of a lamp; in the eyes were the hunger of jealousy, the hunger which drives out all other sense as the famine of the body kills the mind.

With a loud cry Bruno flung his arms upward towards the boy he loved. The great city, the strange crowds, the blazing fires faded from his sight; he had no eyes except for Pippa’s son. But his shout was drowned in the uproar of the screaming multitude; the close‐packed throngs swept with one movement outward to where the coloured fires were blazing and roaring from the Place of the People, around the great obelisk of Egypt; he was borne off his feet, wedged in, hemmed round, carried and forced by the rushing tide of human life away from the spot where the White Child played with fire; he lost his consciousness for a moment in the great roar and pressure of the overwhelming mass; when he came to himself he had been pushed upward into the square under the domes of the church raised to lay the ghost of Nero; all was dark; the sport was over; the throngs were still dense, the horses of the city guard were slowly scattering them; there were no lights; except the quiet stars above in the cloudless skies.

The boy in the goatskin was by him, and looked at him curiously.

“They hit you on the head; not meaning. You would have fallen, I think, only the crowd was so close, it kept you upright; you are a strong man. I ran with you because you hate that woman, and you gave me money. Will you give me more? Shall I show you where she lives?”

“Aye! — show me!” said Bruno, stupidly; and by instinct, like a dog, stooped and drank from the hollow of his hand the water of the lion’s mouth.

“You are her father or her brother?” said the boy; “you must be something to her since you look like that. She is an evil one — yes — that is sure. Did you see that lad with her; the one with the great dark eyes and the girl’s face? That is the one who makes all that great music. He will make no more. Not he.”

And the boy turned a somersault on the stones under the stars, and flung his Bacchus mask up in the starlight.

“He is good,” said the lad, when his somersault was ended, and he dipped his mask in the fountain and drank from it and spit it out again, because water was not wine. “He is good. When Lili was lamed that day he came and found us out and gave us money and spoke soft words; and there was an old lute of Lili’s lying there, and he took it up and made it sound so — one would have said the angels were all singing — and then, all in a minute, he put it down and tears were in his eyes, and he went — so — saying nothing more. But he sent to us often; only Lili always says — since that — the lute seems dumb.”

Bruno gave him more money.

“Show me where,” he said.

The boy pressed through the loosening crowd, and bade him follow.

They went through many a narrow street, solitary and dark, until all the noise of the multitude was left behind them, and they even ceased to see the stray noisy groups of the straggling maskers.

“Why should he play no more?” said Bruno, suddenly, in the stillness; the words were haunting him.

“That is what the city says,” answered the boy, who went leaping and turning in endless gyrations; a ghastly figure in the moon rays and the shadows in his satyr’s garb, and with his wine‐god’s head.

“The city says it? Why?”

Bruno felt stupid still; a falling torch had struck him on the head, and he had fasted long, and all his heart and soul were sick with hopelessness.

“Because it is dead; gone out of him; that is what they say. She killed it — just for sport. Why not? That is what she would ask: Why not?” And the boy whirled like a wheel in the gloom under the beetling houses.

“Why not?” said Bruno, as a rock might give back an echo sullenly.

There arose near them iron gates and high black walls, and the heads of palm trees. The boy pointed to them.

“There it is. Pay me.”

At that moment wheels passed them; horses foaming and plunging passed them; the gates opened; the mud from the winter rains struck Bruno in the face.

“That is she,” said the boy in the mask of Bacchus.

The gates closed, shutting her in. Bruno wiped the mud from his mouth.

He put money in the child’s hand again, and bade him go.

“He was with her,” said the boy, with his white teeth shining through the wide jaws of his mask. “She has not done with him yet. She maddens him with jealousy and pain. She cheats him always — and them all. It must be brave sport to be a woman?”

Bruno bade him begone.

The little lad ran off; but, once more lingering, returned.

“Do not hurt him,” he said, again, and then reluctantly went away; a quaint, small, faun‐like figure in the moon rays.

Bruno remained by the closed gates. He sat down on the stone coping of the wall and wrapped his cloak around him. It was now the tenth hour.

There was no sound, except from a fountain that was within the gates and of the night wind amongst the palm‐trees. He had no hope; all was dark. He could not see why God dealt thus with him. His heart hardened against earth and heaven.

To behold the dominion of evil; the victory of the liar; the empire of that which is base; to be powerless to resist, impotent to strip it bare; to watch it suck under a beloved life as the whirlpool the gold‐freighted vessel; to know that the soul for which we would give our own to everlasting ruin is daily, hourly, momentarily subjugated, emasculated, possessed, devoured by those alien powers of violence and fraud which have fastened upon it as their prey; to stand by fettered and mute, and cry out to heaven that in this conflict the angels themselves should descend to wrestle for us, and yet know that all the while the very stars in their courses shall sooner stand still than this reign of sin be ended:— this is the greatest woe that the world holds.


Beaten, we shake in vain the adamant gates of a brazen iniquity; we may bruise our breasts there till we die; there is no entrance possible. For that which is vile is stronger than all love, all faith, all pure desire, all passionate pain; that which is vile has all the forces that men have called the powers of hell.

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