1839-1908 Ouida.

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" To Florence," said Signa. " There must be great music there. But
Bruno will never let me go. If there be vegetables to take to the city, he takes
them himself. He says that cities are to boys as nets to birds."

" But why ? " began Palma, having eaten her crust, and with her hands
braiding the straws one in another. '

SIGNA. 171

But Signa pursued his own thoughts aloud:

" There is a score of a man called Bach in the church. It is a part of what
they call an oratorio; a kind of sacred play, I suppose, that must be. It is
marked to be sung by a hundred voices. Now, to hear that a hundred voices !
I would give my life."

"Would it be better than to hear some one singing over the fields?" said
Pal ma.

Signa sighed.

" You do not understand. The singing over the fields, yes, that is beautiful
too. But it is another thing. Some one has scribbled in old yellow ink on
some of the scores. In one place they wrote, ' This miserere, sung in the Sistine
this day of Ashes, 1722; fifty-five voices, very fine.' Dear ! To hear that !
it must be to the singing in the fields like the lightning on the hills to a glow-

" The lightning kills, ' said Palma, meaning simply what she said, and not
knowing that she pointed a moral in metaphor.

" I must go back with the seeds, Palma," said the boy, rising from under
the old south wall.

He was not vexed with her, only no one understood, no one, as he said
to the Rusignuolo, when he went home with the basket slung at his back,
playing the violin as he went over the hills, as his habit was, while the little
children ran down through the vines to listen, and the sheep stood on the ledges
of the rocks to hear, and the hollowed crevices gave the sound back in faint,
sweet, faithful echo.

Palma, plaiting as she walked, went to her father's cottage, and laid her
straw aside, and twisted her short skirt as high as her knees, and went down
into the cabbage-bed and worked; hard labor that made her back bend like
an osier, and her brown skin wet with heat, and her feet cold and black with
the clinging soil.

He lived in the air, like a white-winged fringiullo; and she in the clods,
like a poor blind mole.

" We are nothing to him, any one of us," she thought, and a dew that was
not a rain-drop fell for a moment on the crisp green cabbage-leaves.

But she hoed and weeded and picked off the slugs, and scolded herself for
crying, and labored ceaselessly all the afternoon over the heavy earth; and
then put a pile of the cabbages into a great creel, and carried it on her back
into the Lastra, and sold it for a few coppers; and then went home again to
make her brothers' shirts, and draw the water that filled the troughs of bark that
ran across the plot of ground, and clean her poor little hovel as well as she
could, with five boys, and a pig, and hens and chickens, always sprawling on
the floor; and when the sun set, washed the mud off her limbs, and climbed


the rickety ladder into the hole in the roof, where her straw mattress was, with
two bits of wood nailed in the shape of a cross above it.

Palraa worked very hard. In winter, when the bitter mountain-wind was
driving everything before it in a hurricane whose breath was ice, she had to be
up and out in the frosty dark before day, no less than in the soft dusk of the
summer dawns. She had all the boys to attend to and stitch for; her father's
clothes to make; the cottage to keep clean as best she might; she had to dig
and hoe, and plant the slip of ground on which their food grew: she had to
help her father often in the great gardens: she had to stand on the square
stone well, and draw the water up by the cord and beam, which is a hard task
even for a man to do long together: and, finally> in all weathers, she had to
trudge wherever she was wanted, for the good-natured Sandro was as lazy as
he was cheery, and put labor on what shoulders he could, so only they were
not his own.

If ever she had a minute's leisure, she spent it in plaiting, and so got a few
yards done a week, and a few coppers to add to the household store; for they
were very poor, with that absolute poverty which is often glad to make soup
of nettles and weeds; frequent enough here, and borne with a smiling patience
which it might do grumbling Northern folk, whose religion is discontent, some
good to witness if they could.

That was Palma's life always; day after day; with no variety, except that
sometimes it was cabbages, and sometimes lettuces, and sometimes potatoes,
and sometimes tomatoes; and that when the sun did not grill her like a fire,
the north wind nipped her like a vise; and when the earth was not baked like
a heated brick, it was a sodden mass that she sunk into like a bog. That was
always her life.

Now and then she went to a festival of the saints, and put a flower in her
rough black braids as her sole means of holyday garb; and twice a year, at
Ceppo and at Pasqua, tasted a bit of meat. But that was all: otherwise her
round of hours never changed, no more than the ass's in the brick-kiln mill

Nevertheless she put up her cross above her bed, and never laid herself
down without thanking the Heavenly Mother for all the blessings she enjoyed.

The State should never quarrel with the Churches. They alone can bind a
band on the eyes of the poor, and, like the lying watchman, cry above the strife
and storm of the sad earth, " All's well ! All's well ! "

Palma never thought for a minute that her lot was a hard one. Her one
great grief had been losing Gemma. Under all else she was happy enough: a
brave and cheerful and kindly girl, and with no evil habit or coarse thought in
her; and pure as Una, though she had to stand on the well-edge with bare
arms and legs gleaming like bronze in the sun, and the wind blowing her poor
thin skirt like a leaf.

SIGNA. 173

Meanwhile the boy went up the hill-side, thinking not at all about her.
He was thinking of an epitaph he had seen in an old book the day before,
an epitaph from a tomb under an altar of St. Simon and St. Jude in Rome:



He was thinking how beautiful a thing it would be to die, if one were only
sure of having " Musicas Princeps " written above one's rest under the golden
glory of St. Peter's dome.

He was no longer content, like the boy Haydn, over a worm-eaten clavecin,
content with the pleasure of sound and of fancy, and pitying kings because
they were not as he. He was no longer content thus.

The desire of eternal fame the desire of the moth for the star had
entered into him.

Meanwhile, though he cried his heart out for her, Gemma never returned.

Sandro came back without her, and cried a little for a week, but was not
disconsolate, and on the whole found his nutshell of a house more tranquil
without the little, sulky, self-willed beauty. But Palma mourned her long; and
her playfellows likewise.

" I was so wicked to let her go with me ! " said Signa, often, in bitter self-
reproach. But the good-natured Sandro did not reproach him.

" My dear," he said, "when a female thing, however small, chooses to go
astray, there is not the male thing, however big, that should ever hinder her."

Sandro never looked beyond his pots of pinks and beds of roses; but he
knew so much human truth as that.

What Gemma had gone to, who could tell ? wandering with little Savoyards
and Roman image-sellers, or dancing with dogs and monkeys, in rainy streets
of Northern towns, or under the striped canvas of merry-andrews' booths; that
was what most of the children did who were tempted and taken over sea.

" Anyhow, wherever she is gone she is happy if she has got a bit of ribbon
in her hair, and a sugar-plum upon her tongue, and she will get them for her-
self, I will warrant, anywhere," said Bruno, who could not have honestly said
that he was sorry she was lost.

But Signa, when he said those things, cried so that he ceased to say them;
and gradually the name of the sunny-headed little thing dropped out of memory
except with Signa and Palma, who would talk of her often in their leisure
minutes, sitting under the wall by the fountain, watching the old speckled toads
come and go, and the chaffinches preen their white wings, and the cistus buds
unfold from the little green knots, and the snakes' bread turn ruby red till it
looked like a monarch's sceptre dipped in the bloodshed of war.


Whenever at night the storm howled, or the snow drifted over the face of
the hills in winter, Signa would tremble in his bed, thinking of his poor lost
playmate, as she might be at that very hour homeless and friendless on the
cruel stones of some foreign town. His imagination tormented him with vision
and terror of all the possible sufferings which might be falling to her lot.

It was my fault, it was my fault," he said incessantly to himself and
every one, and for a long time utterly refused to be comforted. When the
great day of his first communion arrived, and he went, one of a long string of
white-clad children, with his breviary in his clasped hands, and little brown
shabby Palma behind him with the -other girls, Signa felt the hot tears roll down
his cheeks, thinking of the absent, golden-headed, innocent-eyed thing, who
would have looked so pretty with the wreath of white wild hyacinths upon
her head.

" The boy is a very lamb of God: how he weeps with joy at entering the
fold ! " thought the good old Parroco from the hills, looking at him.
But Signa was thinking of Gemma.

" Dear love, do not fret for her," said Teresina, that very day, after the
service of the church, in her own little room over the Livornese gate; "never
fret for her. She is one that will light on her feet and turn stones to almonds,
always: trust her for that."

But Signa did fret; though he knew that they were right. He had no
thought to be unkind to those he lived with; but he became so innocently and

All his mind and heart were with those crabbed manuscripts in the sacristy,
and with the innumerable harmonies and combinations thronging through his
brain. He wanted to learn; he wanted to understand; he wanted to know
how others had been able to leave to the world, after their death, those imper-
ishable legacies of thought and sound. He could only dream uselessly, puzzle
himself uncertainly, wonder hopelessly: he thought he had power in him to do
something great, but how could he be sure ?

Meanwhile he was only a little peasant, riding out with the barrels of wine,
pruning the olives, shelling the maize, driving the cow up to her pasture under
the pines. And Bruno said always, "when you come after me," "when you
are a man grown and sell corn in the town market yourself," " when you are
old enough to go in on a Friday and barter," and ten thousand other
phrases like these, all pointing to one future for him, as the needle points
to the pole.

The boy was heavy-hearted as he went up the hill-path.
Sometimes he was ungrateful enough to wish that Bruno had never followed
and found him on the sea-shore; that he had wandered away with Gemma into
the dim tangle of an unknown fate. .All his affections clave to the beautiful

SIGNA. 175

mountain-world on which he lived; but all his unsatisfied instincts fluttered like
young birds with longing for far flight.

Sometimes he wondered if there were any great man whom he could ask,
and was vexed that he had lost the little bit of paper by the water-side the
night he had run from the Lastra. It might have been of use who could tell ?

"Are you tired?" said Bruno, that evening. "You should not tire. At
your age I could walk from here to Prato and back, and never a bead on my
forehead nor a muscle weary."

" I am not tired," said Signa. " I was thinking."

" You are always thinking. What good does it do ? "

" I was thinking: ever so many hundred years ago, down in the city, I
have read that three men, a Corsi, a Bardi, and a Strozzi, found poet and com-
poser, musician and singers, all of themselves, and gave the city an opera in
Palace Corsi; the second it ever heard. Are there any nobles like that
now ?"

" I do not know. And how can you tell what an opera is ? "

" I can fancy it. Gigi has told me."

" An opera is a pretty thing. I do not deny it," said Bruno, too true a son
of the soil to be deaf to the charms of the stage. " When I was a youngster,
indeed, always before before I had more to do with my money, I was forever
going down to get a standing-place in the summer theatre: the women round
you, and the fine music, and the big moon overhead oh, yes, I used to care
for it very much; but, after all, they are follies."

" Would you let me go and hear one ? "

Signa's eyes lit; all the paleness and fatigue went out of his face; he
looked up at Bruno as a spaniel at his master.

"What for?" said Bruno, sharply. "If you want merry-making, they
dance every night down at Fiastra, the girls and the boys."

Signa's face fell; he went without a word into his own little bedchamber.

To jump about in the droll Tuscan rigadoon, and to whirl round plump
Netta or black Tina, that was not what he wanted. But how should Bruno
understand ?

He could hear the sound of the bell from the roof of the Fiastra farm,
calling the dancers along the hill-side, but he shut his door and sat down on
his bed and took out his violin.

After all, it was the only thing that could understand him.

His small square casement was open; clematis flowers hung about it;
the vast plain was a vague silvery sea, full of all the beautiful mysteries
of night.

He played awhile, then let the Rusignuolo fall upon his knee and the bow
drop. What use was it ? Who would ever hear it ?


The fatal desire of fame, which is to art the corroding 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


When he had been a little child, he had been quite happy if only the sheep
had heard his music and only the wandering water-course answered it. But
now it was otherwise. He wanted human ears to hear; he wanted all the
millions of the earth to sing in chorus with him.

And no one of them ever would.

The power in him frightened him with its intensity and its longing: his
genius called on him as the Jehovah of Israel called on the lad David; and, at
the summons of the solemn unseen majesty, all the childhood and the weakness
in him trembled.

He sat quite quiet, with the violin upon his knee, and his eyes staring out
at the starry skies.

The heavens were brilliant with constellations: red Antares flamed in the
south; the Centaur lifted his head; and radiant Spica smiled upon the harvest.
The moon was at the full, and all the sky was light, but it did not obscure
"the length of Ophiuchus large," nor the many stars held in the Herdsman's
hand, nor the brilliancy of Altair and Vega.

Bruno, working out-of-doors under the house-wall, heaving up the buckets
from the tank, and watering his salad-plants in the evening coolness, noticed
the silence. He was used to hear the sweet sad chords of the Rusignuolo all
the evenings through, outstripping the living nightingales' song.

" Perhaps he is beginning not to care for it," he thought, and was glad,
because he was always jealous of that thing, for whose sake the boy was so
often deaf and blind to everything around him.

"When he knows what I have done," thought he, letting the bucket down
into the splashing water, that glittered like a jewel in the starlight, " when
he knows all I have done, and sees his future so safe, and feels the manhood
in him, and knows he will be his own master, then all these fancies will go by
fast enough. Strong he never will be perhaps, and he will always have thoughts
that no one can get at. But he will be so happy and so proud, and his music
will just be a toy for him, nothing more: just a toy, as Cecco's chitarra is
when he takes it up out of work-hours. He will put away childish things,
when he knows the saints have been merciful to me."

And he stopped to cross himself, before he took up the rope and drew up
the pail and flung the water over the rows of thirsty green plants.

The saints had been merciful to him.

All things had thriven with him since the day he had told the truth in the
Lastra. The seasons had been fair and prosperous, the harvests large, the vin-

SIGNA. 177

tages propitious. There had not been one bad year, from the time he had taken
the boy home in the face of his neighbors. Everything had gone well with
him. It seemed to him that every grain he had put into the earth had multiplied
a million-fold; that every green thing he had thrust into the mould had brought
forth and multiplied beyond all common increase.

He had labored hard, doing the work of three men; sparing himself no
moment for leisure or recreation; crushing out of himself all national inborn
habits of rest or of passion; denying himself all indulgences of the body; toiling
without cessation when the hot earth was burning under the months of the lion
and scorpion as when the snows drifted thick in the ravines of the Apennines.
And now his reward was almost at hand.

He almost touched the crown of all his labor.

He thanked the saints and crossed himself, then flung the last shower of
water over his plants, and went in-doors to his bed with a heart at ease.

" He is tired of his toy; he is not playing," he thought, as he closed the
household bars and beams against the sultry lustre of the night, and set his old
gun loaded against his side, and threw his strong limbs on his mattress with a
sigh of weariness and a smile of content.

After all, he had done well by Pippa's child: in a very little while he would
have bought the boy's safe future, and housed it from all risks, so far as it is
ever possible for any man to purchase the good will of fate.

" The saints were very merciful," thought Bruno, and, so thinking, fell into
sleep with the stillness and the fragrance of the summer night all about him in
the quiet house.


FOUR months later, on a Sunday morning, Bruno and he walked to their
own parish church over the ploughed land for early mass.

The bells were ringing all over the plains below. Their distant melodies
crossing one another came upward on the cool, keen air.

The church was exceeding old, with an upright tower, very lofty and ruddy-
colored, and with an open belfry that showed the iron clapper swaying to and
fro, and the ropes jerking up and down, as the sound of the tolling echoed
along the side of the hill.

The brown fields and the golden foliage sloped above and below and around
it. A beaufiful ilex oak rose in a pyramid of bronzed foliage against its roof.
The few scattered peasants who were its parishioners went one by one into the
quietness and darkness and stillness. The old priest and a little boy performed


the offices. The door stood open. They could see the blue mountain-side and
the vines and the tufts of grass.

Bruno this morning was more cheerful and of more gayety of words than
the boy had ever seen him. His character was deeply tinged with that melan-
choly which is natural to men of his country, where their passions are strong,
and which lends its dignity to all the countenances of Sarto's saints, of Giotto's
angels, of Fra Bartolommeo's prophets, of Ghirlandaio's priests; countenances
that any one may see to-day in the fields of harvest, or in the threshing-barns,
anywhere where the same sun shines that once lit the early painters to their

Bruno kneeled down on the bricks of the old hill church with the truest
thanksgiving in him that ever moved a human heart; one of the desires of his
soul had been given him; going through the fields he had thought, " Shall I tell
him yet ? or wait a little." And he told himself to wait till he should get the
boy down to the borders of the brook quite in solitude.

With labor he had compassed the thing he wished. He had made the future
safe by the toil of his hands. He was happy, and he blessed God.

Kneeling on the red bricks, with the mountain-wind blowing over him, he
said to himself,

" I think Pippa must know. The saints are good. They would tell her."

He breathed freely, with a peace and joy in his life that he had not known
since the dark night when he had let the dead body drift out to the sea.

A sunbeam came in through a chink in the stone wall, and made a little glow
of silvery light upon the pavement where he knelt. He thought it was Pippa's

He rose with a glad light shining in his eyes.

"We will not work to-day," he said when the office was over.

Usually he did work after mass.

They went home, and they had coffee and bread. Coffee was a thing for
feast-days. He went outside and cut a big cluster of yellow Muscat grapes,
growing on his south wall, which he had left purposely when he had taken all
the others off the vine for market.

He laid them on Signa's wooden platter.

"They are for you," he said. It is fruit for a prince."

Signa wanted to share them with him, but he would not. He lighted his
pipe and smoked, sitting on the stone bench by his door under the mulberry
LJnder his brows he watched the boy, who leaned against the table, plucking
his grapes with one hand, and with the other making figures with a pencil on

Signa's lithe, slender limbs had a girl's grace in them; his shut mouth had
.sweet sereneness; his drooped eyelids had a dreamy sadness; his lashes

SIGN A. 179

shadowed his cheeks; his hair fell over his forehead; he was more than ever
like the Sleeping Endymion of Guercino.

But he was not asleep. He was awake; but only awake in a world very far
away from the narrow space of four walls in which his body was.

"You look like a picture there is in the city," said Bruno, suddenly, who
had stalked through the Tribune as contadini do. " The lad in it has the
moon behind him, and he dreams of the moon, and the moon comes and kisses
him, so Cecco, the copper, said, and never of another thing did the boy
think, sleeping or waking, but of the moon, which made herself a woman. Is
the moon behind you ? You look like it."

Signa raised his head and his long dusky lashes; he had not heard distinctly;
he was intent upon the figures he was making.

" I have never seen the city," he said, absently; "never since I used to run
in, when I was little, after Baldo's donkey."

" What are you doing there ? " said Bruno, looking enviously at the pencil;
he was envious of all these unknown things, which he always felt were so much
better loved by the boy than ever he was or would be himself.

Signa colored to his curls.

" I was writing music."

" Write music ! How can you write a thing that is all sound ? You talk

" I think it is right," said Signa, wistfully. " Only I cannot be sure. There
is nobody to tell me. Gigi thinks it is correct, but impossible. He thinks
no one could ever play it. I can play it. But then I hear it. That is different."

" Hear the paper ? You get crazed ! " said Bruno. " Dear, you get too old
to dream of all this nonsense. Your Rusignuolo is a pretty toy enough, and
you play so that it is a joy to listen to you. That I grant. But it is a childish
thing at best, and gets no man his bread. Look at the old beggar Maso who
wanders with his flute. Music has. brought him to that pass."

" The beggar Maso says that men, by music, have been greater than kings,"
murmured Signa, with his eyes dropped again on his score.

" Then he lies, and shall get a crust at this door no more," said Bruno, in
hot haste.

For the world was a sealed book to him, and music a thing universal but
of no account, like the meadow-mint that sweetened the fields; a thing of a
shepherd's pipe, and a young girl's carol, and the throats of villagers at Passion-
week masses, and the mandolins of lovers and merry-makers, going home on
St. Anna's Eve through the vines after dance and drink. '

Signa sighed, and bent his head closer over his paper. He never disputed.
He was not sure enough of the little he knew.

" You like it better than the grapes," said Bruno, with vexed irritation.


He had saved the grapes two months and more with the thoughts of Signa's
pleasure in them always at his heart. It was a little thing, a nothing. But


Signa folded up his paper and ate his grapes, with a flush almost of guilt on
his face. All his soul was in the concerto that he was writing.

He had found his own way through the secrets of composition by instinct;

Online Library1839-1908 OuidaOuida, illustrated (Volume 8) → online text (page 19 of 88)