1839-1908 Ouida.

Wisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida online

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through the darkest storm to deep, as from the lightest
leaf-dancing in the summer wind ; he has found joy in
the simplest things, in the nest of a bird, in the wayside
grass, in the yellow sand, in the rods of the willow ; the
lowliest creeping life has held its homily and solace, and
in the hush of night he has lifted his face to the stars,
and thought that he communed with their Creator and
his own. Then all in a moment Love claims him,
and there is no melody anywhere save in one single
human voice, there is no heaven for him save on one
human breast ; when one face is turned from him there

SIGNA. 249

is darkness on all the earth ; when one life is lost let the
stars reel from their courses and the world whirl and
burn and perish like the moon ; nothing matters ; when
Love is dead there is no God.

TDRUNO lay down that night, but for an hour only.
*~* He could not sleep.

He rose before the sun was up, in the grey wintry break
of day, while the fog from the river rose like a white wall
built up across the plain.

It is the season when the peasant has the least to do.
Ploughing, and sowing, and oil-pressing, all are past ;
there is little labour for man or beast ; there is only
garden work for the vegetable market, and the care of
the sheep and cattle, where there are any. In large
households, where many brothers and sisters get round
the oil lamp and munch roast chestnuts and thrum a
guitar, or tell ghost stories, these short empty days are
very well ; sometimes there is a stranger lost coming over
the pinewoods, sometimes there is a snow-storm, and the
sheep want seeing to ; sometimes there is the old roister-
ing way of keeping Twelfth-night, even on these lonely
wind-torn heights ; where the house is full and merry,
the short winter passes not so very dully ; but in the
solitary places, where men brood alone, as Bruno did,
they are heavy enough ; all the rest of the world might
be dead and buried, the stillness is so unbroken, the
loneliness so great.

He got up and saw after his few sheep above amongst
the pines ; one or two of them were near lambing ; then
he laboured on his garden mould amongst the potato
plants and cauliflowers, the raw mist in his lungs and the
sea-wind blowing. It had become very mild ; the red
rose on his house-wall was in bud, and the violets were


beginning to push from underneath the moss ; but the
mornings were always very cold and damp.

An old man came across from Carmignano to beg a
pumpkin-gourd or two ; he got a scanty living by rubbing
them up and selling them to the fishermen down on the
Arno. Bruno gave them. He had known the old creature
all his life.

" You are dull here," said the old man, timidly ; be-
cause every one was more or less afraid of Bruno.

Bruno shrugged his shoulders and took up his spade

"Your boy does grand things, they say," said the old
man ; " but it would be cheerfuller for you if he had taken
to the soil."

Bruno went on digging.

" It is like a man I know," said the pumpkin-seller,
thinking the sound of his own voice must be a charity.
"A man that helped to cast church-bells. He cast bells
all his life ; he never did anything else at all. ' It is
brave work,' said he to me once, ' sweating in the furnace
there and making the metal into tuneful things to chime
the praise of all the saints and angels ; but when you
sweat and sweat and sweat, and every bell you make just
goes away and is swung up where you never see or hear
it ever again that seems sad ; my bells are all ringing
in the clouds, saving the people's souls, greeting Our
Lady ; but they are all gone ever so far away from me.
I only hear them ringing in my dreams.' Now, I think
the boy is like the bells to you."

Bruno dug in the earth.

" The man was a fool," said he. " Who cared for his
sweat or sorrow? It was his work to melt the metal.
That was all."

"Ay," said the pumpkin-seller, and shouldered the
big, yellow, wrinkled things that he had begged; "but
never to hear the bells that is sad work."

SIGN A. 251

Bruno smiled grimly.

" Sad ! He could hear some of them as other people
did, no doubt, ringing far away against the skies while
he was in the mud. That was all he wanted ; if he were
wise, he did not even want so much as that. Good-

It was against his wont to speak so many words on any
other thing than the cattle or the olive harvest or the
prices of seeds and grain in the market in the town.
He set his heel upon his spade and pitched the earth-
begrimed potatoes in the skip he filled.

The old man nodded and went to wend his way to

Suddenly he turned back : he was a tender-hearted,
fanciful soul, and had had a long, lonely life himself.

"I tell you what," he said, a little timidly; "perhaps
the bells, praising God always, ringing the sun in and
out, and honouring Our Lady ; perhaps they went for
something in the lives of the men that made them ? I
think they must. It would be hard if the bells got every-
thing, the makers nothing."

Over Bruno's face a slight change went. His imperious
eyes softened. He knew the old man spoke in kindness.

" Take these home with you. Nay ; no thanks," he
said, and lifted on the other's back the kreel full of
potatoes dug for the market.

The old man blessed him, overjoyed ; he was sickly
and very poor ; and hobbled on his way along the side
of the mountains.

Bruno went to other work.

If the bells ring true and clear, and always to the
honour of the saints, a man may be content to have
sweated for it in the furnace and to be forgot ; but if it
be cracked in a fire and the pure ore of it melt away
shapeless ?


"Toccb"was sounding from all the city clocks. He
met another man he knew, a farmer from Montelupo.

" Brave doings !" said the Montelupo man. "A gala
night to-night for the foreign prince, and your boy sum-
moned, so they say. No doubt you are come in to see
it all?"

Bruno shook himself free quickly, and went on ; for a
moment it occurred to him that it might be best to wait
and see Signa in the town ; but then he could not do that
well. Nothing was done at home, and the lambs could
not be left alone to the shepherd lad's inexperience ; only
a day old, one or two of them, and the ground so wet,
and the ewes weakly. To leave his farm would have
seemed to Bruno as to leave his sinking ship does to a
sailor. Besides, he had nothing to do with all the gran-
deur ; the king did not want him.

All this stir and tumult and wonder and homage in the
city was for Signa ; princes seemed almost like his ser-
vants, the king like his henchman ! Bruno was proud,
under his stern, calm, lofty bearing, which would not
change, and would not let him smile, or seem so womanish-
weak as to be glad for all the gossiping.

The boy wanted no king or prince.
' He said so to them with erect disdain.

Yet he was proud.

" After all, one does hear the bells ringing," he thought ;
his mind drifting away to the old Carmignano beggar's
words. He was proud, and glad.

He stopped his mule by Strozzi palace, and pushed his
way into the almost empty market to the place called the
Spit or Fila, where all day long and every day before the
roaring fires the public cooks roast flesh and fowl to fill
the public paunch of Florence.

Here there was a large crowd, pushing to buy the
frothing, savoury hot meats. He thrust the others aside,
and bought half a kid smoking, and a fine capon, and

SIGNA. 253

thrust them in his cart. Then he went to a shop near,
and bought some delicate white bread, and some foreign
chocolate, and some snowy sugar.

"No doubt," he thought, "the boy had learned to like
daintier fare than theirs in his new life;" theirs, which
was black crusts and oil and garlic all the year round,
with meat and beans, perhaps, on feast nights, now and
then, by way of a change. Then as he was going to get
into his seat he saw among the other plants and flowers
standing for sale upon the ledge outside the palace a
damask rose-tree a little thing, but covered with buds
and blossoms blushing crimson against the stately old
iron torch-rings of the smith Caprera. Bruno looked at
it he who never thought of flowers from one year's end
on to another, and cut them down with his scythe for his
oxen to munch as he cut grass. Then he bought it.

The boy liked all beautiful innocent things, and had
been always so foolish about the lowliest herb. It would
make the dark old house upon the hill look bright to
him. Ashamed of the weaknesses that he yielded to,
Bruno sent the mule on at its fastest pace ; the little red
rose-tree nodding in the cart.

He had spent more in a day than he was accustomed
to spend in three months' time.

But then the house looked so cheerless.

As swiftly as he could make the mule fly, he drove
home across the plain.

The boy was there, no doubt ; and would be cold and
hungry, and alone.

Bruno did not pause a moment on his way, though
more than one called to him as he drove, to know if it
were true indeed that this night there was to be a gala
for the Lamia and the princes.

He nodded, and flew through the chill grey afternoon,
splashing the deep mud on either side of him.

The figure of St. Giusto on his high tower ; the leafless


vines and the leafless poplars ; the farriers' and coopers'
workshops on the road ; grim Castel Pucci, that once
flung its glove at Florence ; the green low dark hills of
Castagnolo ; villa and monastery, watch-tower and bas-
tion, homestead and convent, all flew by him, fleeting and
unseen ; all he thought of was that the boy would be
waiting, and want food.

He was reckless and furious in his driving always, but
his mule had never been beaten and breathless as it was
that day when he tore up the ascent to his own farm as
the clocks in the plain tolled four.

He was surprised to see his dog lie quiet on the steps.

" Is he there ? " he cried instinctively to the creature,
which rose and came to greet him.

There was no sound anywhere.

Bruno pushed his door open.

The house was empty.

He went out again and shouted to the air.

The echo from the mountain above was all his answer.
When that died away the old silence of the hills was

He returned and took the food and the little rose-tree
out of his cart.

He had bought them with eagerness, and with that
tenderness which was in him, and for which dead Dina
had loved him to her hurt. He had now no pleasure in
them. A bitter disappointment flung its chill upon

Disappointment is man's most frequent visitor the
uninvited guest most sure to come ; he ought to be well
used to it ; yet he can never get familiar.

Bruno ought to have learned never to hope.

But his temper was courageous and sanguine : such
madmen hope on to the very end.

He put the things down on the settle, and went to put
up the mule. The little rose-tree had been too roughly

SIGNA. 255

blown in the windy afternoon ; its flowers were falling,
and some soon strewed the floor.

Bruno looked at it when he entered.

It hurt him ; as the star Argol had done.

He covered the food with a cloth, and set the flower
out of the draught. Then he went to see his sheep.

There was no train by the seaway from Rome until
night. Signa would not come that way now, since he
had to be in the town for the evening.

" He will come after the theatre," Bruno said to him-
self, and tried to get the hours away by work. He did
not think of going into the city again himself. He was
too proud to go and see a thing he had never been sum-
moned to ; too proud to stand outside the doors and stare
with the crowd while Pippa's son was honoured within.

Besides, he could not have left the lambs all a long
winter's night ; and the house all unguarded ; and no-
body there to give counsel to the poor mute simpleton
whom he had now to tend his beasts.

" He will come after the theatre," he said.

The evening seemed very long.

The late night came. Bruno set his door open, cold
though it was ; so that he should catch the earliest sound
of footsteps. The boy, no doubt, he thought, would drive
to the foot of the hill, and walk the rest.

It was a clear night after the rain of many days.

He could see the lights of the city in the plain fourteen
miles or so away.

What was doing down there ?

It seemed strange ; Signa being welcomed there, and
he himself knowing nothing only hearing a stray word
or two by chance.

Once or twice in his younger days he had seen the city
in gala over some great artist it delighted to honour ; he
could imagine the scene and fashion of it all well enough ;
he did not want to be noticed in it, only he would have


liked to have been told, and to have gone down and
seen it, quietly wrapped in his cloak, amongst the

That was how he would have gone, had he been told.

He set the supper out as well as he could, and put wine
ready, and the rose-tree in the midst. In the lamplight
the little feast did not look so badly.

He wove wicker-work round some uncovered flasks by
way of doing something. The bitter wind blew in ; he
did not mind that ; his ear was strained to listen. Mid-
night passed. The wind had blown his lamp out. He
lighted two great lanthorns, and hung them up against
the doorposts ; it was so dark upon the hills.

One hour went ; another ; then another. There was
no sound. When yet another passed, and it was four
of the clock, he said :

" He will not come to-night. No doubt they kept him
late, and he was too tired. He will be here by sunrise."

He threw himself on his bed for a little time, and closed
the door. But he left the lanthorns hanging outside ; on
the chance.

He slept little ; he was up while it was still dark, and
the robins were beginning their first twittering notes.

" He will be here to breakfast," he said to himself, and
he left the table untouched, only opening the shutters so
that when day came it should touch the rose at once and
wake it up ; it looked so drooping, as though it felt the

Then he went and saw to his beasts and to his work.

The sun leapt up in the cold, broad, white skies, Signa
did not come with it.

The light brightened. The day grew. Noon brought
its hour of rest.

The table still stood unused. The rose-leaves had
fallen in a little crimson pool upon it. Bruno sat down
on the bench by the door, not having broken his fast.

SIGN A. 257

"They are keeping him in the town," he thought.
" He will come later."

He sat still a few moments, but he did not eat.

In a little while he heard a step on the dead winter
leaves and tufts of rosemary. He sprang erect ; his
eyes brightened ; his face changed. He went forward
eagerly :

" Signa ! my dear ! at last ! "

He only saw under the leafless maples and brown vine
tendrils a young man that he had never seen, who stopped
before him breathing quickly from the steepness of the

" I was to bring this to you/' he said, holding out a
long gun in its case. "And to tell you that he, the youth
they all talk of Signa went back to Rome this morning;
had no time to come, but sends you this, with his dear
love and greeting, and will write from Rome to-night.
Ah, Lord ! There was such fuss with him in the city.
He was taken to the foreign princes, and then the
people ! if you had heard them ! all the street rang
with the cheering. This morning he could hardly get
away for all the crowd there was. I am only a mes-
senger. I should be glad of wine. Your hill is steep."

Bruno took the gun from him, and put out a flask of
his own wine on the threshold ; then shut close the door.

It was such a weapon as he had coveted all his life
long, seeing such in gunsmiths' windows and the halls
of noblemen : a breech-loader, of foreign make, beauti-
fully mounted and inlaid with silver.

He sat still a little while, the gun lying on his knees ;
there was a great darkness on his face. Then he gripped
it in both hands, the butt in one, the barrel in the other,
and dashed the centre of it down across the round of his
great grindstone.

The blow was so violent, the wood of the weapon
snapped with it across the middle, the shining metal



loosened from its hold. He struck it again, and again,
and again ; until all the polished walnut was flying in
splinters, and the plates of silver, bent and twisted, fall-
ing at his feet ; the finely tempered steel of the long
barrel alone was whole.

He went into his woodshed, and brought out branches
of acacia brambles, and dry boughs of pine, and logs of
oak ; dragging them forth with fury. He piled them in
the empty yawning space of the black hearth, and built
them one on another in a pile ; and struck a match and
fired them, tossing pine-cones in to catch the flames.

In a few minutes a great fire roared alight, the turpen-
tine in the pine-apples and fir-boughs blazing like pitch.
Then he fetched the barrel of the gun, and the oaken
stock, and the silver plates and mountings, and threw
them into the heat.

The flaming wood swallowed them up ; he stood and
watched it.

After a while a knock came at his house-door.

" Who is there ? " he called.

" It is I," said a peasant's voice. " There is so much
smoke, I thought you were on fire. I was on the lower
hill, so I ran up is all right with you?"

" All is right with me."

" But what is the smoke ?"

" I bake my bread."

" It will be burnt to cinders."
I make it, and I eat it Whose matter is it ?"

The peasant went away muttering, with slow unwilling

Bruno watched the fire.

After a brief time its frenzy spent itself; the flames
died down ; the reddened wood grew pale, and began to
change to ash ; the oaken stock was all consumed, the
silver was melted and fused into shapeless lumps, the
steel tube alone kept shape unchanged, but it was

SIGNA. 259

blackened and choked up with ashes, and without
beauty or use.

Bruno watched the fire die down into a great mound
of dull grey and brown charred wood.

Then he went out, and drew the door behind him, and
locked it.

The last red rose dropped, withered by the heat.

""THERE is always song somewhere. As the wine
* waggon creaks down the hill, the waggoner will
chant to the corn that grows upon either side of him.
As the miller's mules cross the bridge, the lad as he cracks
his whip will hum to the blowing alders. In the red
clover, the labourers will whet their scythes to a trick of
melody. In the quiet evenings a Kyrie Eleison will rise
from the thick leaves that hide a village chapel. On the
hills the goatherd, high in air amongst the arbutus
branches, will scatter on the lonely mountain-side stanzas
of purest rhythm. By the sea-shore, where Shelley died,
the fisherman, rough and salt and weather-worn, will string
notes of sweetest measure under the tamarisk-tree on his
mandoline. But the poetry and the music float on the
air like the leaves of roses that blossom in a solitude, and
drift away to die upon the breeze ; there is no one to
notice the fragrance, there is no one to gather the leaves.

"D UT then life does not count by years. Some suffer a
*-' lifetime in a day, and so grow old between the rising
and the setting of a sun.

"D UT he was not obstinate. He only stretched towards
*-* the light he saw, as the clant in the cellar will stretch
through the bars.


Tens of millions of little peasants come to the birth,
and grow up and become men, and do the daily bidding
of the world, and work and die, and have no more of soul
or Godhead in them than the grains of sand. But here
and there, with no lot different from his fellows, one is
born to dream and muse and struggle to the sun of higher
desires, and the world calls such a one Burns, or Haydn,
or Giotto, or Shakespeare, or whatever name the fierce
light of fame may burn upon and make irridescent.

""THE mighty lives have passed away into silence, leaving
* no likeness to them on earth ; but if you would still
hold communion with them, even better than to go to
written score or printed book or painted panel or chiselled
marble or cloistered gloom is it to stray into one of these
old quiet gardens, where for hundreds of years the stone
naiad has leaned over the fountain, and the golden lizard
hidden under the fallen caryatide, and sit quite still, and
let the stones tell you what they remember, and the leaves
say what the sun once saw ; and then the shades of the
great dead will come to you. Only you must love them
truly, else you will see them never.

" LJ OW he loves that thing already as he never will
A A love me," thought Bruno, looking down at him
in the starlight, with that dull sense of hopeless rivalry
and alien inferiority which the self-absorption of genius
inflicts innocently and unconsciously on the human affec-
tions that cling to it, and which later on love avenges upon
it in the same manner.

SIGNA. 261

TV7HO can look at the old maps in Herodotus or
" Xenophon, without a wish that the charm of
those unknown limits and those untraversed seas was
ours ? without an irresistible sense that to have sailed
away, in vaguest hazard, into the endless mystery of the
utterly unknown, must have had a sweetness and a great-
ness in it that is never to be extracted from the " tour of
the world in ninety days."

I 1 AIR faiths are the blossoms of life. When the faith
drops, spring is over.

TN the country of Virgil, life remains pastoral still.
* The field-labourer of northern counties may be but a
hapless hind, hedging and ditching dolefully, or at least
serving a steam-beast with oil and fire, but in the land of
the Georgics there is the poetry of agriculture still.

"~PHE fatal desire of fame, which is to art the corrod-
^ ing element, as the desire of the senses is to love
bearing with it the seeds of satiety and mortality had
entered into him without his knowing what it was that
ailed him.

/"^ ENIUS 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 into ice.


/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.

"DETWEEN them there was that bottomless chasm of
mental difference, across which mutual affection can
throw a rope-chain of habit and forbearance for the
summer days, but which no power on earth can ever
bridge over with that iron of sympathy which stands
throughout all storms.

"VV7HEN the heart is fullest of pain, and the mouth
* purest with truth, there is a cruel destiny in
things, which often makes the words worst chosen and
surest to defeat the end they seek.

""THERE is a chord in every human heart that hns a
* sigh in it if touched aright. When the artist finds
the key-note which that chord will answer to in the
dullest as in the highest then he is great.

T IFE without a central purpose around which it can
*"*' revolve, is like a star that has fallen out of its
orbit. With a great affection or a great aim gone, the
practical life may go on loosely, indifferently, mechanic-
ally, but it takes no grip on outer things, it has no vital
interest, it gravitates to nothing.

SIGN A. 263

"CAME has only the span of a day, they say. But to

live in the hearts of the people that is worth


T7"EEP young. Keep innocent. Innocence does not
*" come back : and repentance is a poor thing beside

TTHE chimes of the monastery were ringing out for the
* first mass ; deep bells of sweet tone, that came down
the river like a benediction on the day. Signa kneeled
down on the grass.

"Did you pray for the holy men ?" Bruno asked him
when they rose, and they went on under the tall green
quivering trees.

" No," said Signa under his breath. " I prayed for
the devil."

" FOR him ? " echoed Bruno aghast ; " what are you
about, child? Are you possessed? Do you know what
the good priests would say ?"

" I prayed for him," said Signa. " It is he who wants
it. To be wicked there where God is, and the sun, and
the bells"

" But he is the foe of God. It is horrible to pray for

" No," said Signa, sturdily. " God says we are to for-

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaWisdom, wit, and pathos : selected from the works of Ouida → online text (page 18 of 39)