1. CHAPTER I.
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, [Page 2] 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 [Page 3] 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 [Page 4] 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 [Page 5] 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, [Page 6] “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.”
“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.”[Page 7]
“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.
“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 [Page 8] 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 [Page 9] 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 [Page 10] shores of Genoa were proud when they heard how the old world had been forced to take an empire from their
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 [Page 11] 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‐ [Page 12] 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.[Page 13]
“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.[Page 14]
“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, [Page 15] 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![Page 16]
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.
2. CHAPTER II.
When he rose he looked calm, and his eyes shone with the peace of a tranquil happiness.
“Let us talk here a little,” he said, and they went out into the arcades of Giotto’s cloister, where the mountain winds, and the autumn rains, and the fierce beating of the midsummer suns, have stripped the saints and prophets bare.
“And you are a great man!” he said, with a slow soft smile. “A great man! you—Pippa’s son—my little cowherd and sheep boy! Forgive me, dear; it seems strange.”
“Nay, the music in me is great; not I;” said Signa. “I am like the reed that the gods took to breathe through—that is all.”
“And that is pretty of you to say. But a man is known by his works, as a tree by her [Page 18] fruit; and yours are good. You were no dreamer, my boy, as we thought.”
“But if you had not sold the land!” said Signa.
“Why talk of that? What is done is done. The land was for you; you were right to have it sold. I see that now, dear—it was only hard at first.”
“But who has it? You said a traitor.”
“Lippo has it. He brought it secretly. Honestly as money goes—but not fairly—there is a difference. But why speak of these things. Never put back on your teeth a walnut that has the worm. Dear—you think I have suffered. Do not poison your pleasure with that fancy. When the news came that winter night, I had more content—for you—than ever the land would have brought with it. I said, ‘God is good.’ God is good. He has given you your heart’s desire; and you have come back safe; and have not forgotten.”
He was leaning against one of the columns, the boy was sitting on the marble ledge where [Page 19] the graves are. Bruno looked down on him as the sun shone above his young upturned face. Signa was not much changed; his dress was all of white linen, but it was very simple; the sea, the travel, and the hope, and new glory of his life had warmed his cheek, and invigorated his limbs; that was all; but there was about him, and upon him, that immeasurable, indescribable alteration which raises up the childhood that dreams into the manhood that has accomplished; he was a boy still, but he was a boy who had fought his fight, and had conquered.
He was no longer Endymion sighing fitfully in a tormented sleep with vain desire; he was the Endymion who had held his divine mistress in his arms, and vanquished, and possessed her.
“Do not think of the land any more, ever again,” said Bruno. “It was of use. That was all it could ever have been. It is for me now as I had never had it. That is all. Dear, tell me of yourself rather;—you have so much to tell.”
It was a noble lie.
The land was the cruellest loss of his life. [Page 20] Every time that the voice of his brother echoed up through the pines, every time that he saw the strange hands amongst the olive boughs and the river rushes, the longing of vengeance possessed him as ardently as in the moment of Lippo’s first taunts, the sharpness of his loss was as poignant to him as in the hour when the had first said to the notary, “sell.” But Bruno gave his gifts with both hands; he did not weight them with a millstone of appraisement.
Signa had so much to tell; days, weeks, months, could not have exhausted for him the story of his wanderings and his victories. He had lost nothing of his simple eager faith, nothing of his spiritual endless aspirations; only now, instead of dreaming of victory he had achieved it; now, instead of the passionate praises of genius, he had its passionate joys.
He told his story sitting under the arches of the noble cloisters, with the strong August sun making the marble warm like human flesh. It was the same story that Bruno had heard from the letters and from the printed sheets, month after month; but it only now took life and [Page 21] colour for him, it only now became an actual truth for him, heard from the boy’s happy breathless lips, with the blue shining above the open court.
Signa was a great singer in the land, as Cimarosa had been in his, with his gay melodies caught from the threshing barns and the orange‐gatherers and the coral‐fishers and the vintage‐dancers; as the poet Chiabrera had been with his mighty odes that echoed like the roll of battle; as the improvisatore Bernardo had been with his silver lute that held the Romans still as listening goats that circle round a shepherd’s pipe:—that he could understand now, wonderful though it was; now that the boy’s eyes shone back to his, and the boy’s own lips told him of cities and villas and seashores and mountain palaces, and the tumult of towns in summer nights, and the chorus of strange voices under his casement singing his own songs till the dawn broke.
He could understand it now; and though it took Pippa’s son away from him—quite away into a world where he himself could never tread—yet he was proud of it and glad—bewildered, but very glad.[Page 22]
“That you should be so great, you little thing!” he murmured, and smiled, thinking of the night coming in from the Certosa, when he had carried the child, worn‐out and tired, as the owls cried and Signa dreamed of the Fair Angel.
To Bruno the boy was only such a little thing—no more than a girl was, or a bulrush, or a willow rod in the stream.
And half the nation was chaunting his music, and the other half babbling of his name!
“The land did not go in vain!” he thought, with a thought that he would not utter aloud, lest it should seem a regret or a reproach; and then he rose and shook himself, with a glow of joy on his olive skin and a softened light beaming under his straight drooped eyes.
“Let us go, dear. Hark! The clock is striking. We have talked here three hours. I will get your baggage; you left it yonder—yes? It is not fair to keep you from the Lastra. And you are tired, too, no doubt, and hungry. Will you sleep to‐night on your own little hard bed, after lying under those great nobles’ roofs? Do palaces smell sweeter than our hills? I think they cannot.”[Page 23]
Talking so, with a quickness and abundance quite rare to him, that came with the proud overflowing of his silent heart, he went and sought the boy’s small packages, and swung them over his shoulders and came out again into the hot sunshine smiling.
He was only a peasant, with bare feet and shirt open at his breast, and his face dark with many years of toil; but there was nobility about him, and dignity, and freedom.
Signa, who, though he had half forgotten, loved him, looked at the dark erect figure of him against the white marble and the blue sky, and thought the old painters might have painted him there in the chapter‐house as the Shepherd King, the Re Pastore of Metastasio.
“Can you walk, dear? Oh, it is too far! I did not bring the cart to‐day,” said Bruno.
“Too far! The dear old, dirty, ugly road that I had to trot down in an hour after Baldo’s beast! No; I should like to see every stone of it! And perhaps the people will know me. I think so.”
So they went.[Page 24]
“You should have a chariot, like a young prince; and you walk as we do in the dust,” said Bruno with a smile. He was so proud and glad. All jests seemed sweet.
“I love the dust. Does it not go to the Lastra?”
And he stooped and raised a little of the dust in his hand and kissed it and blew it away and laughed. He too was so happy. All trifles had their charm.
“Poor Palma asked for you this morning,” said Bruno.
“Palma did? I have brought a trinket for her.”
“A trinket! She sold her hair in Lent to pay her father’s burying.”
They went on along the road. It was dusty, noisy, unlovely, as it always is; with the people sitting out at their doors, and the smiths and the joiners and the coopers and the straw‐plaiters all at work in the darksome open interiors.
Presently one woman clapped her hands.
“If that is not little Signa that used to live on the hill!”[Page 25]
And then a blacksmith stood and stared.
“What, Bruno Marcello! Is that your boy?”
And the contadini going by in their carts turned and looked and shouted.
“That is Signa, only he looks like a lordling all in his white and with shoes on!”
And they drove away and said in the gates of the Lastra:
“Signa is come home. He will be here in a very little; we passed him on the road.”
But the road was long to Signa; for now one would speak, and then another would shake hands, and one man would fetch out a stoup of drink, and some girl would give him a fresh carnation; and what with one thing and another, and the gathering groups and the recognitions and the wonder and the eager greetings and the reluctant farewells, his path was made as slow as any young conqueror’s going along laurel‐hung streets in war‐time; and by the time they came in sight of the shields on the Porta Fiorentina, it was nearly night, and the Ave Maria was sounding everywhere, and the lamps were beginning to be lighted.[Page 26]
In this country people gather together, like mosquitoes after a wisp of lighted straw, on the slenderest pretext, to follow and to watch, and to chatter.
There was a throng on his steps laughing, shouting, chattering, not knowing very well why they went, but vaguely fancying that he, since the world had made a king of him, must have grown rich, and would by and by throw some gold to the foremost.
There was a little crowd at his back, and out of the great east gate there came another crowd; there was a white‐haired old man at their head; they had torches flaring red on the dusk; women ran with them and children; the deep voices and the shrill ones rose together—they were singing his own Death Chaunt of the Christians. Luigi Dini, who led them, had taught it to them to sing as requiem in the Holy week of the past Lenten season.
When the peasants had driven in saying, “Signa comes,” the old man had called his choristers together, and many young brethren of the confraternity, and had said to them, “Let [Page 27] us meet him with his own music—there can be no welcome like that.”
Signa stopped suddenly; his heart swelled, his eyes swam; he had had many a grander triumph, many a more radiant spectacle, many a louder‐toned praise from bigger multitudes; but none had moved him like that little crowd in the fitful glow of the torches, those fresh, rough, untrained voices singing his own music in the dusk and the heat of the summer night—at home.
They came out to meet him as a conqueror; and, only such a little while before, he had been a little child they mocked at for hearing the angels singing in the clouds, when for their ears only the crickets chattered in the corn.
He stood still while the torches tossed about him, and the strong familiar voices throbbed and thrilled upon the air; then he threw his left arm round Bruno’s shoulders, and stretched his right hand out to the old man; and he looked at the brown well‐known faces turned upward in the shadow of the old grey gate:
“Dear friends! what I am, these two have made me. The heavens would not have opened for [Page 28] me if on earth these two had not succoured me. When I am gone, will you remember that?”
In an after time the people said to one another, “What did he mean—‘when I am gone’?”
Then, standing outside the gateway there, and stretching in a long line through the Lastra, while every casement and every doorway had its cluster of eager faces, they all flung their torches in the air, and shouted vivas loud enough to stir the soldier soul of dead Ferruccio, sleeping far away; then, as the peasants had done above Fiastra before the world had heard of him, they lifted him on their shoulders; and, laughing and shouting and crying and leaping like young children in their pride and pleasure, they bore him away under the arch of the old gate, chaunting the chorus of the Christians, while from every dark doorway and every grated window heads were thrust and hands were offered, and in the small dull town just going to its sleep there was one universal outcry:
“It is little Signa come home!”
Up by the shrine of the Good Counsel, Lippo’s window alone was dark.[Page 29]
And Palma, mending the great holes in her brother’s shirts by the light of a solitary oil‐wick while the boys were sleeping, knew nothing of the festival within the gates.
It was late ere they would let him go. They were poor people, all of them; working for their daily bread; but if he could have eaten gold that night they would have found means to change their loaves to it, they were so proud of him—their little neglected, laughed‐at waif and stray, to whom the grilli in the moonlit wheat had taught such sweet‐toned singing.
They forgot that they had been rough with him,—that they had kicked him about like a little lame dog—that they had said all manner of cruel things to him and of the man who defended him: those who do wrong can so easily forget. But neither did he care to remember.
They were the people of the Lastra to him—the people of his home.
That was enough.
They would carry him into Sanfranco’s house; they would pour forth the richest wine that the country could yield; they would all touch him, all [Page 30] look at him, all have a word with him; they would come in one on another in an endless stream, with a ceaseless delight; they would pour question on question, wonder on wonder, and stand and look at him as if he were a young god come down on earth.
“And to think if I had not let him have that fiddle so cheap, the world might never have heard of him—never!” said Tonino the tinman, looking in on the edge of the crowd, though he did not venture farther.
For not only the fly on the spoke praises to itself for the speed of the wheel, but the stone that would fain have hindered it, says, when the wheel unhindered has passed it, “Lo! see how much I helped!”
Signa, perceiving him in the dark without, looked over at him and smiled.
He did not care to remember his hurts. He was happy, and men all seemed to him brothers in the sunshine of God’s peace, like the saints in the Spanish Chapel where he had prayed that day.
“When I was a little thing,” he said to them, [Page 31] “I dreamed of gates of gold for the Lastra here. Gates of gold I never can give. But, if all go well with me, I will live and die amongst you here; and you will make my grave on the high hills, and you will sing what I have written when you bury me.”
“Why does he talk of dying?” they said to one another. “His life is only just begun.”
But Signa did not hear them. He was looking down on them with a smile; while his eyes were wet with tears.
He had looked like that when he had been a little child, and they had said, “Is it the angels he hears?—nay, it is only the crickets in the corn that are humming.”
It was late when they would let him go. Bruno had waited patiently, saying nothing to any soul, drawn back a little near the door, with the look of a great peace upon his face; but silent, because too proud and with too much scorn in him to say:
“You see that I spoke truth. And this is no young god—this is only Pippa’s son, whom you derided.”
The crowd went with him out by the sea gate, [Page 32] and took leave of him till the morrow, kissing his hands and his clothes, and shouting and leaping around him, and bidding him be down at sunrise—all the tables of the town should be spread for him.
He had refused to be taken homeward. He wished to tread with his own feet the lovely, familiar road. As the last of the throng left him, and Bruno and he were alone, in the moonless, sultry night of the hottest month of the year, the echo of the people’s voices followed them, still singing the chaunt of the “Christians.”
“Fame has only the span of a day, they say,” murmured the boy half aloud. “But to live in the hearts of the people—that is worth something.”
“They love you now. Ten years ago they beat you—ten years hence they will beat you again if the humour takes them,” thought Bruno; but he said nothing. After all, he might be wrong.
There was a little light in a little hut by the wayside. Bruno looked at it.
“That is where Palma lives now,” he said. [Page 33] “The other house went with the garden. She works late to‐night—there are so many boys.”
“I will give her what I have brought,” said Signa, and he paused and knocked at the door. “It is I—Signa!” he cried aloud.
The girl unbarred the door, and flung it open. She did not speak, but her great eyes were alight with a fire like the leaping of the dawn, and she trembled from head to foot.
“It is I,” said Signa, slipping into her hand a little packet. “Look—you must wear this to please me—to show you I did not forget. I will come and see you in the morning, dear. Good‐night!”
He kissed her cheek, and went away.
Palma took the parcel to the light, and opened it; it was a string of carved coral beads and a cross.
“And I am so ugly, now! oh, so ugly! Oh, how cruel God is!” she cried, in a passion of anguish, and dropped her poor brown head on her hands; her head that was like a boy’s.
She had never before thought it any pain to have given her brave black tresses to pay her [Page 34] father’s grave; only a duty, so simple and natural, that it was not to be thought twice about in any way, and never to be lamented with self‐pity; but now she could have wept her very soul out to have lost her sole treasure, to be so unlovely, so absurd, so shameful, to have given up her one crown and veil of womanhood.
“I am so ugly!” she moaned, sitting on the bare mud floor with the pretty coral necklace in her lap.
It was all the reward that her sacrifice brought her—to know herself disfigured and discrowned, when Signa’s eyes should fall on her with the morrow’s sun.
She had never thought about herself, never taken any count whether she were lovely or unlovely, ill or well: in her laborious life filled to the brim with work that was never done, there was no time for any such speculation; she toiled all the day long and half the night without joy or pause, or recompense of any sort; honest and pure and loyal to her task by sheer instinct, as birds are clean, or leaves are fresh; never before with any thought of herself, all her life being [Page 35] merged in the lives she served; but now, for the first time, her heart cried out in sick rebellion.
God had made her ugly—just as Signa came.
He, unwitting, went on with Bruno up the sea‐road where his mother had stumbled to her death. There was hardly as breath of air, even on the hills. After a while, having reached a height, they paused and looked behind them. It was all a great sea of darkness, fragrant, but solemnly dark, like a mighty grave.
“And you love nothing but your music still?” said Bruno, suddenly. “Nothing? no woman? You would tell me?”
“No woman, no!” said Signa; and he spoke the simple truth. Yet in the gloom of the night his face grew warm. He had loved no woman yet; but, in his visions of late, the angels that came to him had all women’s forms and women’s faces as in the visions of the Paradise on Orgagna’s field of gold.
As they stood and looked back into that soft impenetrable darkness, there came a fluttering line of light, which, undulating like a fiery snake, [Page 36] stole through the shadow up and up and up towards the clouds.
“What is that?” cried the boy, startled and unnerved after the homage and the wakeful fancies of the night.
“They are the torches,” said Bruno. “A hill burial—that is all. There are so many lights; it is some young thing dead.”
“The torches came to meet me in triumph an hour ago,” thought Signa, and a shiver went over him, and he ceased to look back.
The lights stole up the hillside towards some lonely tomb amongst the silence of the woods, then vanished, and all was dark.
3. CHAPTER III.
With the morning, Signa went down to see more quietly all his old friends of the Lastra. Passing, he paused by Palma’s hut. She was at work in her garden, gathering tomatoes off the bushes before her poor little dwelling. She had tied the red woolen handkerchief over her head again. She hardly looked up as she thanked him for his gift.
“It is too magnificent for me,” she murmured. “You know I am so poor always, and so ugly now; I have lost my hair.”
“Who would not love you more, dear?—knowing why you lost it,” said Signa, kindly; for he knew the goodness of the girl, and was fond of her in his gentle way—only she never could understand anything, not knowing her letters [Page 38] even, and being always at work like a little windlass that everybody’s hand turns.
But Palma shook her head.
She did not know anything indeed, but the instincts of her sex moved in her and made her feel that no glory of a golden deed is so great a nimbus to a woman as the rays of a physical beauty.
“Indeed, you are never ugly, Palma,” said Signa, to console her. “Dear, you have straight features and such noble eyes; you cannot be ugly, ever. And for the hair, that will very soon grow, and you must wear the necklace on feast days when I am gone, to show that you remember me.”
Remember! Palma thought of the S. Cecilia hung up in the church above on the hill. She had meant to tell him it; she had dreamed always of leading him up there hand in hand, as they had used to go when they were children, and making him sit on the altar‐steps where the jasper was, while she told him what she had done; but she was silent about it now that he was here. Someway she felt almost ashamed of it.[Page 39]
He had made his own fame; he had won his own victory; he did not want her help or S. Cecilia’s. Perhaps he would only smile, she thought. She was not sure of the great use of the picture; all in a moment she had lost her faith in it.
He looked so full of grace, smiling there in the sunshine.
She glanced up at him, feeling as if there were whole worlds of distance between him and her. She could not have done him any good with her prayers up there in the dark; she could not have been wanted. She would have liked to tell him, but she felt ashamed.
“You work so hard, Palma,” he said, leaning over the low stone wall.
“Yes; but I have always done that. It is not new.”
“But the boys must help you, now?”
“A little; but they eat more than they earn.”
“Did your father suffer much—dying?”
“A great deal; it only lasted a day. He could not speak much, but he thought of [Page 40] Gemma; he kept looking at that little Jesus in wax that used to be so like her. He has seen her now—in heaven.”
“You are always sure she is dead?”
“Oh, yes! She would not have forgotten us so long as this, if she were living.”
Signa was silent. He knew that to those who go, forgetfulness is easy; to those who stay, impossible.
“I never think she is dead,” he said at last.
“Because she was so full of life; so sturdy, so mirthful; always in mischief too, and doing so well for herself: things like that do not die.”
“Everything dies if God will it,” said Palma. “For me, I am sure, she would not have forgotten if she were living. Sometimes I pray to her to make me a little sign from heaven, but she never does.”
“She was like a cherub in heaven to look at,” said Signa, who never quite had ceased to mourn his lost playmate or to reproach himself with her fate. After his music, he had most loved Gemma.[Page 41]
“Yes,” said Palma, and stooped down her head over her hoeing at the weeds; she felt so ugly with her short, ruffled, foolish, clipt curls, that made her feel like a shaven dog. She never had thought of her face before; of what it possessed or of what it lacked; but that morning, rising, she had looked at herself in the little square bit of mirror over the flour‐bin, and had thought she was lean and brown and frightful.
“I do not believe she is dead,” said Signa, again. “Sometimes, in the strange cities, I looked about in the women’s faces to see if there may be one that might be hers. She would not alter. I should know her.”
“You never will see her. She is dead,” said Palma, with the obstinacy that is always in the peasant as in the mule.
She worked on amongst her tomatoes, gathering the bright scarlet balls into a skip. She could not tell him about her S. Cecilia.
He would only talk of Gemma all the while, if they were to go up there amongst the thrushes and the rosemary;—besides, the change that was in him she felt more acutely [Page 42] than even Bruno had done. This beautiful young Endymion, whom the moon had kissed, could have wanted no help of hers. Her poor, little picture seemed to her so foolish, so humble, so small; the grace and greatness of his fame could not have grown out of her prayers in that little dark nook. All the year she had thought that it had, and had poured out all her heart in them. But now that she saw him, her hope seemed to her as stupid a thing as if a brown ant creeping by with a grain of corn had thought it filled the granaries of the world.
She was ashamed of her little picture that she had spent all she possessed to hang up there by the altar‐rail, with the ruby light of the stained glass upon it whenever the sun went west. She did not dare to ask him go up to the hill with her and see it.
“I did what I could; but then he did not want anything done,” she thought.
“She is dull and morose; she works too hard, poor girl,” thought he; and he moved away. “Good day, dear, for a little; I will see you before I go.”[Page 43]
“Go! —you go again then?”
“Ah, yes! In a very little. It will be the autumn season soon. I go whenever the ‘Actea’ is played.”
Palma looked up at him; straight in his face.
“And you are quite happy?”
“And you are really great?”
“Men say so. I do not know. I will be greater if I live.”
“And Bruno lonelier.”
She wished the words, when they were said, unsaid. Signa’s face clouded a moment.
“That is not my fault,” he said, slowly. “And no—perhaps he will not be;—when I am all that I dream of, and when I have gold in both hands, I will come back and live here on the hills, that I promise; and I will build a palace of marble that shall look east and west; and all the hungry shall be fed there, and all the footsore rest. And then, when there are any boys quite desolate, as I was, and dreaming beautiful things, as I did, and wanting help, and not knowing where to turn, then they will all come to me; and I will [Page 44] teach them, and we will sing together, and they shall be happy, and we will give our lives for the world; and men will love us, and through us love God: it will be like the ‘Angeli’ of S. Marco dwelling together with music, with the roses round them, and the sky above!”
He stopped; the cloud had cleared from his face; it was shining with a light that was sweeter than the sun’s.
He was only a boy still; and the world had not dimmed his dreams with its breath.
Of all the innocent things that die, the impossible dreams of the poet are the things that die with the most pain, and, perhaps, with most loss to humanity. Those who are happy die before their dreams. This is what the old Greek saying meant.
The world had not yet driven the sweet, fair follies from Signa’s head, nor had it yet made him selfish. If he had lived in the age when Timander could arrest by his melodies the tide of revolution, or when the harp of the Persian could save Bagdad from the sword and flame of Murad, all might have been well with him. But [Page 45] the time is gone by when music or any other art was a king. All genius now is, at its best, but a servitor—well or ill fed.
Palma listened, looking up at that bright, strange light upon his face; not understanding at all with her mind, but wholly with her heart. The frozen pain in her melted.
She put her full basket back into the house.
“Will you come with me a moment?”
“To the old church, up yonder.”
She called to her little brother to mind the house, and took Signa up the narrow, winding paths, just trodden down in the grass by a few rare footsteps, going up amongst the vines and then amongst the olives, and then where the land grew wilder amongst the gorse. The vines were hung with grapes that touched them as they went; the wild peaches fell yellow at their feet; the blue radish‐flower was in the grass like gleams of the sky reflected on the dew; big oxen, muzzled and belled, looked at them through the leaves.[Page 46]
“It is so beautiful!” said Signa, mounting higher and higher into the tangle of green and the network of sunbeams.
“Yes,” said Palma. But she did not know it. She had not time. Amongst all its sad losses, poverty has none that beggars it more than its loss of perception.
They reached the old church, brown and solitary, with a few cypresses near it, and round it the sheep grazing; it had once been the chapel of a great villa, of which there was nothing now left but roofless arches and a wall where the rains of five hundred winters had not quite washed away the frescoes.
She took him in, and led him up to the pillar by the altar where the little picture hung.
“I bought it; I put it there,” she said, timidly. “Perhaps it has done nothing, you know; perhaps you do not want it;—but at least it could do no harm, and I have come and prayed here every little bit of time I had to spare. I am sure the saints love you—without that or anything—but it was all I could do. And when you were so far away—”[Page 47]
Signa looked up at the column and understood it all. He stooped and kissed her, touched to the quick.
“Ah dear!—how good to think of me. You bought it—you, who toil so hard? Oh, Palma! I will try and find Gemma for you;—I shall find her;—something tells me so.”
Palma sat down on the lowest altar step; she did not answer. If he had looked at her face he would have seen that it was very pale under the brown that the sun had scorched on it. But he did not look; he was looking up at the painted Sebastian on the roof, and thinking how bitterly Gemma had cried one day because he could not reach down the saint’s golden arrows for her.
The sheep bells tinkled; the smell of the rosemary was sweet on the air; a bird sang, sitting on the old tattered mass‐book.
“Gemma is in heaven,” said Palma, and sat still and pale in the morning light.
Gemma!—who had always been so much happier than she.
“Perhaps I shall find her somewhere in the [Page 48] great world,” said Signa, softly. “And she will have suffered, perhaps, and sorrow have softened her and ennobled her—it does, they say—and made her soul as beautiful as her little body was. Think of that Palma! and then I would bring her home to the palace that I mean to build, and make her happy, so happy; and she would be in all my music, just as the sun is in all the flowers. Think of that Palma! Pray that it may come true. It would be like a story out of the ‘Legend of Gold.’”
Palma was still very pale.
“You will see her in heaven,” she said. “She was drowned in that sea, that I am sure.”
But Signa shook his head.
“She is alive; that I am sure.”
4. CHAPTER IV.
Signa went down into the Lastra and sat awhile with Teresina in the room over the sea‐gate, and spoke with old friends—of whom he found many, since they are flowers that grow fast in the soil of success—and spent some hours in the sacristy, turning over, with curious emotion, the yellow scores and crabbed manuscripts which had once been written to him in an unknown tongue.
Then he passed down into the city.
He knew so little of it, scarcely more than if he had been a stranger. Bruno had held him back from it always.
He strayed into the galleries, quiet and deserted in the strong August heats, and saw the face of the Samian Sybil and the beauty of the Venus of Titian.[Page 50]
As he wandered down the corridor which holds the portraits of the artists painted by themselves, he paused before one which seemed to him, in a way, familiar. It was the head of a man still young; a head that had grace and power in it, but also levity and caprice. It was roughly painted in black and white.
“Whose head is that?” he asked the custodian dozing in the sun.
“A living painter’s—one Istriel.”
“Of what country?”
“France. He is a great man there. He did that for us by order of the King.”
“I have seen him somewhere; where does he live?” said Signa, and mused a little while; and then remembered the morning of the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, and the gift of the Fair Christ.
“He lives in France, I suppose,” answered the other. “But I think he is a great deal in Rome. I think he works there a great deal.”
“What kind of things does he paint?”
“Women, for the most part, I believe. There is a picture they talk very often of just now; you [Page 51] can see a copy of it in the town: it is very fine—a woman.”
“Oh, no; just a woman dancing.”
“I will see it,” said Signa, and he went where the man directed him for sake of those two gold coins that had bought his Rusignuolo.
“Who knows?” he thought, “without those forty francs I might never have known more of music than to thrum on a lute to the sheep.”
Who could tell? All Bruno’s labour of eighteen years might have been of less use than two gold pieces tossed by a stranger.
He found the place where the copy of the great picture could be seen; a copy made by the painter’s pupils, and shown for a little while by his permission, the original being in Paris. It was a picture of which all the world had talked two years before, whilst Signa was buried under the dust of study, and the darkness of poverty, and the disbelief of men.
The copy was alone in a small cabinet, hung with red, and lighted from the top; it was a full‐ [Page 52] length form of a woman dancing—only that; on a sombre background of brown shadow.
Was it so beautiful?
He did not know. But he shaded his eyes as from too much sun. It dazzled him. The figure stood out form the darkness like a living thing; all the light was concentrated on the exquisite fairness and warmth of the supple body, on the head turned over the shoulder, on the upraised arms tossing castenets above; on the know of pomegranate buds above the ear; on the rounded limbs, lithe as reeds and white as snow; on the transparent scarf of scarlet, touched with gold, which was the only drapery. The figure bent a little backward, showing every curve and grace of it: the face was beautiful.
It was called, with the arrogance of a genius that knew its hold upon the world, “A Sister for the Seven Dancers of Herculaneum.”
Signa stood before it blinded, stunned, confused.
No living woman had ever moved him as this dancer did. He gazed and gazed till, as the passion of the Spanish love‐song says, “his [Page 53] heart’s blood was drawn from him through his eyes.”
And yet the picture hurt him.
Hurt him by the taint that there was upon its loveliness; as there is in that of the Venus Calipyge of Naples.
An old man, looking at the picture at the same time, spoke of it.
“Yes; it is a beautiful study,” the stranger said. “I have seen the original. This is a fine copy. The artist has touched it here and there himself.”
“It is not a portrait?” said Signa, timidly. He could not bear to speak of the picture, and yet he wanted to know more of it.
“Oh, yes, it is a portrait. Only you see that he has painted it in the old Greek manner—the feet off the ground, no sign of earth, indeed; the figure floating, as if she flew. Yes, it is drawn from life. A girl—a woman—whom they call Innocence, in Paris.”
“Innocence! And painted there!”
The old man smiled.
“Nay, Vitellius called his bear so. The [Page 54] wild beast shamed it less than does the woman, perhaps.”
The next morning he said to Bruno,
“I have found the name of the man who gave me that money in the Lastra. It is Istriel. You remember my losing the paper in the rushes as I ran.”
“What do you want with any man now?” said Bruno, jealously; “or with any man’s help?”
“Nothing, indeed; but I should like to see him.”
“I cannot see why you should think about him.”
“Perhaps I never should have got beyond my little lute but for him.”
Bruno gave an impatient gesture.
“We are what we are,” he said, with rough fatalism. “It is no chance wind that blows the notes into the nightingale’s throat, and the screech into the owl’s; all that is settled beforehand.”
Signa was silent. He did not say his thought aloud which was:
“I wish to meet this painter, because I want to [Page 55] know where he found her, or if he only fancied her—that ‘Sister of the Seven Dancers.’”
He said instead, “Come down into the city and see a picture of his.”
“I cannot to‐day,” said Bruno, “because there is so much to do. Watering alone takes six hours in this dry weather; but to‐morrow, perhaps, I can.”
To‐morrow he went. He did not know anything about any of the arts, but he was at home amongst them; they were familiar things to him: it is so with all his country‐folk.
He stood and looked at it for some time; then he laughed a little.
“Yes; it is a beautiful—wanton.”
He had hit the blot on it.
Signa sighed unconsciously and restlessly. The picture beguiled him, bewitched him, and yet hurt him.
Bruno said, “Do not look at it too long; it will get into you—like marsh fever;” and took him away.
When they were in the sun again in the streets, he added:[Page 56]
“If your baby Gemma were alive, that is just what she would be like.”
“No! never!” said Signa, indignantly; he did believe she was living, but he looked for her always amongst the innocent maiden faces at mass in the churches.
Bruno laughed a grim laugh.
“Let us hope she is dead,” he said. “Only the devil never cuts his very best flowers down early.”
Signa did not answer.
“Your painter must be bred to spread the plague,” said Bruno.
Signa did not ask him what he meant.
He went and found Palma.
“You do pray for Gemma’s soul?” he said to her.
“Always,” said Palma.
“Well, pray more, dear. Perhaps she needs it, who knows?”
“Oh, no; she is in heaven,” said Palma. “Such a child—and Christ so good.”
“Well, never mind. Pray always.”
“That is all he thinks I am of use for, to [Page 57] pray for Gemma’s soul,” thought Palma. But she reproached herself for the thought, as mean and base.
She had never ceased to love Gemma and mourn her;—only she wished he would not talk of her, not so very much.
Signa wandered about the woods alone, and saw always before him, in the golden fires of the summer day, “The Sister of the Seven Dancers.”
She banished the sweet veiled face of Lamia.
“Your painter should cut off his right hand: it is like the sun; it breeds corruption,” said Bruno, who knew the force of the flesh and the devil, and had in him a fierce, scornful wrath against that picture which had burnt his boy’s soul with its impure sorceries.
One day Lippo met him in the pine woods, no one being near.
“Dear nephew,” said Lippo, softly. “We cannot meet. Bruno is implacable. He will never forgive what he thinks an injury. See here:—I knew his little piece of land had to be sold to give your work a trial and a chance of favour. I [Page 58] said to myself: ‘I have a kind father‐in‐law and good friends, shall I offer to lend the money?’ But then I bethought me, ‘Bruno would only answer with a blow.’ So when it was quite sure the land must go, I said to an honest soul in the city whom I could trust, ‘Go, buy it in your own name, and make it over to me; so the thing shall not wound my brother, and yet the piece of ground not go away from the family.’ So said, so done. Dear—I only hold the land in trust. I tried to explain to Bruno, but his head was full of traitors and of wrath; I could make no way with him. He would have brained me with his spade. But this I wish to say to you—my children are dear to me, but justice is dearer still. If ever you wish the land back again, I will sign it over to you—almost as a gift: I would say quite so; but, when one has so many mouths to feed, one is not altogether the master of one’s purse. Dear—be quite sure of this: I bought it, hoping to please Bruno; never to spite and vex him, as he thinks. Christ knows there is no venom in my heart. The other night, when you had such a welcome I was [Page 59] proud and glad; I should have come foremost amongst them, only Bruno is so violent, and I feared it might look time‐serving. But, believe me, no one is prouder than I am, and Nita; she says fifty times if once, ‘To think he is so great—the little drowned baby that sucked with Toto!’ Dear—you have been made to think ill of us. It is a pity. And in your grand, famous ways in the future years you will not want us; that is true. Still, be sure our prayers go with you; and, though we are only poor folks toiling hardly in a little village, we shall not shame you, for we are Christians and we pay our way; and if you ever should desire back that little bit of land—well, I look on it still as yours, and I never let the interests of my children bar the road of justice. No, that were to serve them with very narrow sight and worldly selfishness. Bruno has misjudged me always. Well—the saints bore all evil and were patient. So must we. Dear—farewell. If ever you dare brave my brother’s wrath, and will like to look in on us, you will find frank welcome. But perhaps I am not right to ask it. Your duty is to Bruno before [Page 60] all things. Yes; to you he has been good. Farewell.”
And Lippo went away quite softly through the pines.
Signa was moved. True, they had been unkind to him; but such wrongs fade fast in generous natures, and, where an impersonal passion reigns, personal injuries seem slight and are soon forgotten.
Perhaps Bruno had been harsh and too swift in his ire, he thought regretfully. Bruno’s error was too great haste of temper and strength of hatred; that all the country knew.
“I wish they could be reconciled,” thought the boy, and lingered on his way home wondering if there were any means to do it.
He hinted at forgiveness that night to Bruno.
Bruno set his heel down with a force that jarred the house.
“I do forgive as much as can be asked of any man;—I let him be.”
Meanwhile Lippo went homeward to his house by Our Lady of Good Counsel, pondering whether he could not prevail on Baldo to help [Page 61] him to acquire another acre or two of ground, quite near on the same hill, which rumour said would soon be in the market. Baldo had grown to have strong faith in the prudence and wisdom of his son‐in‐law.
“You will let the boy have back the land at what you gave for it!” screamed Nita, when her husband told of her of the things he had said; for she was a rough, impetuous woman, of fierce temper, and could never see an inch where he saw a full mile.
Lippo smiled, his gentle pensive smile.
“Nay, dear; that is a question for the future. The children’s interests must not be forgotten; that were not just to them; and land rises in value every day, and money gets more scarce.”
And he sauntered out into the warm, star‐lighted streets.
He liked his game at dominoes.
“I have seen the dear lad,” he said to Momo and Tonino and his other gossips. “I met him quite by chance. So tall as he is, and so graceful, and so like a young prince: one would not know him. His heart is full of love for us. He can‐ [Page 62] not show it. No. He would come to us; but I said to him—I say always—‘Your duty, before all else, to Bruno.’ I must say it—knowing what I know. His duty is to him:—as Toto’s duty is to me. Oh, yes. He is a noble lad: spoiled in much; yes, but of a good heart. Bruno has not done ill in letting him have the land’s money for his opera; I know it has paid Bruno back thrice over. Bruno has a clear head and a keen eye. They know that in the Square of the Signorià. Poor boy! Well—I say poor—perhaps stupidly, but it does seem so. Parted from us all, and ruled by Bruno; and, like all people that have genius, a baby, a simpleton, a mere piece of wax—in worldly matters. All the country is ringing of him. It is a great thing to think: unless we had let him go the church functions and learn the plain‐song and be so much with the sacristan in the organ loft, he might never have known all that there is in him; he might have been a little shepherd, barefoot on the hills—yes, still. Throw your bread upon the waters;—aye:—perhaps come back to your own mouth it will not; but you will be blessed [Page 63] by it, someday. The dear boy!—no doubt in his great world he will forget us all, why not? We are peasants, when all is said; and he will go to palaces. But then the good that we have done to him keeps with us like a cypress bough that never withers and drives the evil spirits far away. Dear boy!—to think he is so great!—and will be rich too; if, at least, his gold be left him, and his career well managed. That is the only thing I fear. Bruno loves him—oh, surely, in his way. But then Bruno loves money too.”
And Lippo sighed, and piled the dominoes in a little heap absently, and with a sad, nervous gesture—thinking. The gossips shook their heads.
Lippo was so just a man: that all the town knew. Of such men is the kingdom of heaven. To be sure his window had been dark that night when all the Lastra was rejoicing; but that had only been good feeling in him. He had not liked to seem to claim the boy’s remembrance—when there was such great triumph too.
“We may remind those who fail, of us,” said [Page 64] Lippo, with a gentle smile. “But we must be forgotten by those who succeed—if they choose it shall be so.”
“You are so good,” said his neighbours; and began to mutter to one another that Bruno, when he had sent the boy to the great schools and sold the land for him, had only been sharper of sight and more prudent of forecast than ever—yes.
And the Lastra was well content to think that, when it had welcomed so loudly the young hero of the Actea, it had left Bruno standing aloof, and had not noticed him—not even when Signa bade them.
The lad stayed on till vintage came again and passed; correcting and perfecting his new music of the Lamia in the fresh hill air, in the sweet smell of the fruit; and now and then went down into the city, and stood and gazed at the dancer of Istriel, and drank in the impure sorcery of her, without knowing it.
“Your painter is like the sun; he breeds rottenness from beauty,” said Bruno; who knew the force of the flesh and the devil, as he [Page 65] called it, and felt a sort of sullen scorn of this strange painter who spent his strength in giving enduring shape to the fleeting graces of wantons.
To Bruno it seemed a poor thing to fill a man’s life.
Women were women—to be toyed with if you would; but to pass your life painting in their own likeness their wiles of a moment and their postures of pleasure!—that seemed to him poor pursuit enough. This painter was only a name to him, a vague shadow; but he felt a fierce wrath against him. But for the coins that had bought the Rusignuolo, who could tell?—Signa might have dwelled contented in the peaceful husbandry of the hills.
For the iron was always in his soul. He was proud of his boy, and loved him, and knew that now Signa could never be other than he was; and so ceased to chafe at the unchangeable; and tried to make the best of an undesired destiny. But, like Palma, it was all in vain that he brought his thank‐offering, that he prayed to his gods, that he said a thousand times, “I am glad.”[Page 66]
In his heart there was no gladness.
In his heart he lamented still and rebelled.
With the last day of vintage Signa spent his last hours on the hills.
The Actea was being given at the theatre of Como, and he had to go thither, and thence to Milan, where its music was yet unknown.
He had a sort of longing to buy that dancer of Istriel and take her with him, and look at her always; but it was impossible: despite his new‐born fame and Lippo’s fables he was poor; he made some money, but no more than was needed, for his costs of travel and his simple ways of living and the gifts that he loved to throw broadcast. He was famous, indeed; but he was only a boy, and had to deal with a shrewd world, and it cheated him. The world, like Lacedemonia, is fond of hounding into silence and exile its Timothei who dare to add new chords to its lyre of song; but it is unwise to do it, for its Timothei are so intent on stringing the lyre anew, and hearing the full, sweet sound of their fresh creation, that the world may empty their [Page 67] pockets unfelt, as it will, and unchidden. Its Timothei are its golden geese—it should be content to pluck them; but it is not often so; seldom is it satisfied with doing less than what kills them.
It was very early in the morning.
There had been heavy rains at night, and there was, when the sun rose, everywhere, that white fog of the Valdarno country which is like a silvery cloud hanging over all the earth. It spreads everywhere and blends together land and sky; but it has breaks of exquisite transparencies, through which the gold of the sunbeams shines, and the rose of the dawn blushes, and the summits of the hills gleam here and there, with a white monastery, or a mountain belfry, or a cluster of cypresses seen through it, hung in the air as it were, and framed like pictures in the silvery mist.
It is no noxious steam rising from the rivers and the rains: no grey and oppressive obliteration of the face of the world like the fogs of the north; no weight on the lungs and blindness to the eyes; no burden of leaden damp [Page 68] lying heavy on the soil and on the spirit; no wall built up between the sun and men; but a fog that is as beautiful, for it has beams of warmth, glories of colour, glimpses of landscape such as the moon would coldly kill; and the bells ring, and the sheep bleat, and the birds sing underneath its shadow; and the sunrays come through it, darted like angels’ spears: and it has in it all the promise of the morning, and all the sounds of the waking day.
Bruno’s dwelling was lifted out of it, but it spread everywhere beneath; and the tops of the highest hills seemed to ride on it like ships upon a sea.
Signa paused and looked over the vast scene as he and Bruno came out into the air. He had to leave at eight of the morning for the northern lakes, trusting himself to that iron way and horse of fire which Bruno had never ceased to hate and to mistrust, through night and day for so many years he had heard the steam beast thunder dully through his valley, winding as the river wound.[Page 69]
They came out of the house after their meal of bread, which was all they broke their fast with, and stopped by mutual impulse under the old mulberry‐tree by the porch.
Bruno had said nothing to dissuade him from departure. He had grown to see the necessity of their lives being perpetually asunder.
Signa could only come to him now and then—that he saw; and the times of his coming must grow rarer and rarer, and the links of union between them fewer and fewer—that he saw too. He never complained. He hardly regretted. He had known that it would be so, when he had broken the Rusignuolo. It was a dull, ceaseless, unchanging pain to him, but he said nothing. What was done, was done.
This young singer—this young hero—this young crowned dreamer of dreams, could by no miracle be brought back and be made into a peasant lad, and be contented with a labourer’s lot.
If he ever returned to live here it would only be because the world drove him back with a broken heart; therefore Bruno said, in his dark [Page 70] corner in the church, to the unknown power that he worshipped: “Let him never be brought back—never.”
The world had his boy. Since the world would only part with him if it flung him bruised and ruined away,—let the world keep him.
“After all it does not matter for me,” said Bruno, and taught himself to think so.
Only a vague fear, a shapeless anxiety, haunted him always. He knew too little of any life beyond that of his own country side to be able to go with Signa, even in fancy, into these strange new lines of his fate. He was too ignorant, and mistrusted himself too much, to be able to tell the lad what it was that he dreaded. But in his heart he was full of trouble.
“All is well enough with him now,” he thought. “But when the woman comes?”
For Bruno thought that the great world, since it was made up of men and women, must have the same fatality in it as the life he knew.
The woman makes or mars the man: the man [Page 71] the woman. Mythology had no need of the Fates.
There is only one; the winged blind god that came by night to Psyche.
So much Bruno knew.
A weight of longing and of warning was upon his heart. But he stood silent in the arched way of his house.
The boy seemed now so much wiser than he; had seen so many cities and men; had sown the seeds of his young brain and made already harvest;—was great, though so young. What could he say himself?—a man who knew nothing except to drop the wheat grain into the earth, and wait for sun and storm to make it multiply?
What came in his mind to say were a million confused things; he did not know how to sort them, and shape them into speech.
At last he did say, with the heavy gloom of parting on him:
“Woman is god or devil to man, as he to her. Dear, when you love a woman—tell me. Will you tell me that?”
Signa smiled musingly.[Page 72]
“Oh, yes! I love my Actea and my Lamia. They are the real and living women to me. The rest are shadows.”
“That will not last,” said Bruno, curtly. “Your Actea and your Lamia will be the shadows soon.”
Signa shook his head.
“Not to me. Mozart loved his wife; but it was not of his wife he thought when he was dying. It was of his requiem.”
“You speak like a child,” said Bruno; and they were silent.
It was of no use speaking: they did not understand each other. The boy knew the powers of art, of which the man was insensible. The man knew the powers of passion, of which the boy as yet was ignorant.
Bruno saw in the future a fate that wrestled with him for the soul of Pippa’s son. It wore to him the likeness of that “Sister of the Seven Dancers” of the city of ashes.
To him she was a symbol: she haunted him; he hated her. She—or her likeness—would dispute the boy’s life with him.[Page 73]
As he had hated the sorcery of the Rusignuolo, so he hated the vision of the unknown woman. What use were the boy’s promise, the boy’s faith, the boy’s foolish proud confidence in the empire on him of his dreams? Bruno knew well—a woman would look some day,—just look;—and all these things would be as vapours drifting before the break of day.
“Love kills everything, and then dies itself,” he said, bitterly. “Or, perhaps, it does not die: then it is a flame, always burning, burning, burning, till the body and the heart are cracked, empty, shrunken potsherds. That is love.”
Signa shuddered a little.
“You frighten me,” he said.
“I wish I could,” said Bruno.
And he knew that he could not: that, say what he would, some single look from a woman’s eyes would undo it some day. He had never thought about it till he had seen that Dancer with the pomegranate blossom, in the town; but now he knew—there would be a foe to him some day, that he would not be able to break under his foot, as he had broken the Rusignuolo.[Page 74]
His heart was heavy, standing there in the white cold mists of the daybreak.
To the boy, the future was a golden haze—a mirage full of fair colours—a certainty of national love and public praise, and sweet intoxication, and all the liberty of an untrammelled genius. To the man, the future was dark: he saw no way into it; he had not faith in it; he doubted the good faith of the world.
No doubt it was because he was ignorant. He had told himself so; but he had no belief in this fair fortune blown from the breath of other men.
“It is to plough and to sow in the sand‐bed of the river,” he said to himself. And it seemed to him that Signa mistook the shadow of a reed for the sword of fire of an archangel.
“If your great world should turn against you, should tire of you—they say it is capricious—your heart will be broken,” he said, abruptly, with his hand on the lad’s shoulder.
Signa looked up and smiled.
“No; the world cannot hurt me. My music has gone down into the hearts of the people. It will live there. Nothing else matters.”[Page 75]
“But the world is changeable, I have heard.”
“Fashion is—the people are not. In Milan the other day they sang the same chants in the cathedral that St. Gregory composed five hundred years after Christ. Nothing can hurt me now. If the great world did not want me, I know my force now. I should go through the countries, teaching my songs to the people everywhere. Death itself would not hurt me very much, because, though dead—they might forget me quickly enough, no doubt—but the music would live, and my soul would live in it. What else do I want?”
“I cannot understand,” said Bruno. “You talk as if you had no body to be pained or pleased. One would think you were a spirit—to hear you. It is nonsense;—if one kill a nightingale with a stone, then the song is killed too.”
“Perhaps not,” said Signa softly. “Perhaps a poet has passed and heard it, and sings the song over again to the world.”
But Bruno did not see what he meant.
“One stones it, and it is dead; there is an [Page 76] end,” he repeated, with a sick, heavy sense of peril upon him—of what he did not know clearly; but it seemed to him that the boy walked with his head in the clouds and his feet in the quicksands.
He could not help it.
He could not guard Signa’s steps, nor bend his eyes to earth. It was beyond him. He could only hope; and with Bruno, do what he would, his hope had always the drooped clipped wings of doubt.
They stood silent together; while the sun, behind the sea of snowy mist, shone golden in their faces.
“Dear,” he said, at last, “you go away into a vast unknown world. I cannot help you, nor follow you; nor even warn you—not to do any good. I know the things of the soil, as well as any man; but nothing else. No doubt you go to greatness, having won it for yourself already. And you so young! And I suppose nothing else would ever have contented you; so, it is best so. But there are things, I think, that will go hard with you—one cannot tell; you have not suffered yet, and [Page 77] you seem all mind, just as a flower is all bloom. That will not last: you will find the beast in you some day—even you. Dear, it is not for me to preach, or teach, or counsel anything. I have led a bad life often, and I know nothing. If I were to begin to talk, I might hurt you. One fears to handle your soul: it is like a white moth—to me. What I want to say is just this. You know I promised your dead mother. What one says to the dead, one must keep faith to, more than to the living. The living can avenge themselves, but those poor dead—Dear, will you remember? I want to meet your mother, face to face, on the Last Day; and to just say to her—‘This is your boy; I have done my best by him; he comes back to you with a pure soul; I have given my life for his.’ Will you remember? You are far away from me always now; much farther than by miles. I can do nothing—only hope and fear. If evil do assail you, think of that. Help me to keep my faith with Pippa.”
Signa heard him,—moved, subdued, perplexed.[Page 78]
The great shadow of Bruno’s doubt fell also upon him.
Was there so much more peril in the world than he knew?
He bowed his head.
“I will try,” he said, simply.
Bruno thought, “He does not say—I will.”
They left the house, and went down through the wet woods and the clouds that floated on the sides of the hills.
Before another hour, he was gone.
Bruno stood a little while alone on the edge of the iron rails, listening to the distant thunder of the steam, as the last curl of the smoke disappeared in the windings of the valley. The fog had lifted and passed away. Mountain and river and vineyard and homestead stood out clear in the morning light; his own hill rose above them all,—the quarries shining in the sun, the bold pines piled against the brightness of the sky.
“It is a good augury,” he said, to himself.
He tried to think so.
He retraced his steps up the cliff road, and [Page 79] went home alone, and yoked his oxen to the plough, and drove them up and down beneath the vines, as on the day when Pippa’s body had drifted away on the face of the flood to the depths of the sea.
“It is a good augury,” he said to himself, as the glory of the morning spread over all the earth beneath him.
But, though the sun shone, it seemed to him as if, on all the land and water, a great, empty, desolate silence had fallen.
All was so still.
He was alone.
“The birds do not sing after vintage,” he told himself; and tried to think that it was only that.
5. CHAPTER V.
Palma looked out of her cottage door, and saw the trail of smoke too—going farther and farther away under the green leaves along by the river, round between the mountains. She watched it, shading her eyes; and turned slowly within into the house.
He had not thought to say a word of parting that morning; a kind, careless farewell, the night before, at the garden gate, when Bruno was by—that had been all.
“Why do you cry, Palma?” said the youngest of her brothers, who was only twelve, and a cripple, with his small limbs mis‐shapen and withered.
“Do you ask?—with father not six months in his grave?” murmured Palma.[Page 81]
Her heart smote her as she said it. She was lying to the child.
She went about her daily work. It was for her as if she did it in the dark. But she did it, missing nothing—not even slurring anything. There was so much to be done, with all those five boys, and two only of them earning anything.
Once in that long, laborious day she stole up‐stairs, and looked at the necklace.
“He was thinking that he was buying for Gemma,” she said, as she looked.
Later in the day, the eldest son of Cecco, the cooper, came and leaned over the wall as she worked. He was a cooper too, and a fine‐built youth, and well spoken of in the Lastra.
“You will not think of it, Palma?” he said to her, with his brown eyes wistful and sad.
“You are good; but, no;—never!” said Palma, and went on weeding.
What he wanted her to think of was himself. He did not mind her cropped hair, that would grow. He loved her industrious ways, her independence, her patience, her care of her brothers. [Page 82] His father was well‐to‐do; he would look over the absence of a dower.
“I shall not marry,” said Palma, always.
And when the young cooper said, for the hundredth time, “You will not think of it?”—in this warm, radiant, summer forenoon—Palma only said, “Never!” and went on, stripping her tomatoe bushes of their fruit, and hoeing between the lines of her newly set cauliflowers.
She belonged, she said, to her brothers. So her living self did—her body and her brain, such as it was; and her strong, laborious, untiring feet and hands. But her heart belonged to two other lives—one dead and the other lost: the two lives that had been by hers in their childhood, in the moonlit lemon alleys of Giovoli, and the calm shadows of the old church of St. Sebastian.
Signa and Gemma were always together in her thoughts:—one dead, the other lost.
Cecchino, the son of Cecco, could give her a good house in the Lastra, and a full soup‐pot always, and a good store of house linen, and [Page 83] shoes and stockings, and a settled place in the world. Oh, yes; she knew. And his mother, who was a tender soul, had said, “He loves you, we will not mind about the dower, and you shall have my own self‐spun sheets and my string of pearls.” And they were all good—good as gold. And Beppo and Franco, who foresaw help for themselves in this union, upbraided her always, and railed at her when the bread was too stale, or the sour wine ran short.
But Palma—though she knew, none better, the worth of bread and wine in this life, and the use of a strong arm to bar the door against the Old Man Poverty whom the devil has given leave to hobble perpetually upon the earth and creep in at all cold hearths—Palma shook her head, and would not even think of it, however Cecchino besought her.
“I will not marry you; I do not love you,” she told him. And Cecchino urged that marriage should come first, love last, with women.
“Not so,” said Palma. “That is to have the leaves bitter and the flowers leafless—like the endive. But it is not only that. I will not [Page 84] marry. I will work for my brothers while they want it; and when they do not want me, I will go into a convent—and rest so. That is what I mean to do—Our Lady willing.”
And Cecchino could not change her.
That was what she meant to do.
Rest so;—a brown‐faced, middle‐aged woman, in a white coif, saying prayers in a little cell, on knees stiff from many years of toil, and going amongst the orphans and the poor, and tending dying souls—that was how she saw herself in the future.
It did not appal her.
Any thought of marriage did.
In the convent she would be able to pray for Signa and for Gemma;—and then in heaven she might see their faces.
Perhaps if she worked very hard and prayed very much, the Madonna might call her up quickly, and give her some grace of beauty, there, in heaven to be like them. Sometimes she hoped that, quite humbly; and never sure that she could merit it.
In the twilight of this day—having laboured [Page 85] hard, and seen her brothers come and go, and smiled on them, and forced a cheerful laugh for them, because a dull house was bad for boys, and apt to drive them to the wineshops and the lotteries—Palma stole up, foot‐weary though she was, to the little church above the gardens of Giovoli.
She carried her little crippled brother on her back, because he fretted if he were left long alone, and set him down where the last gleam of sun fell, and gave him a few pebbles to play with, which contented him, because he was not very bright of brain.
Then she went herself and prayed in the nook by the column where S. Cecilia hung. She had lost faith in it, because he had seemed to have none. He had thanked her for her thought of him, but he had never seemed to think it possible that it could have helped him in any way to fame.
“Keep him safe in the world, and let him meet Gemma in heaven,” she prayed; and said it over and over again, in passionate reiterated supplication, clinging to the pillar with her arms wound [Page 86] about it, and her forehead pressed against its cold grey stone.
She prayed there till the moon shone through the stained window on to the broken jasper; and the little cripple cried because the air grew cold, and he could not rise to catch the glow‐worm alight upon the altar step.
She did not ask anything for herself.
Hard work for ten or twenty years longer, and then rest—on the rough boards of a convent bed, and by the death agonies of beggars.
That was her future.
It did not affright her.
“Only keep him safe on earth,—and her in heaven.”
That was all she prayed.
She was sure the saints would hear her.
She came out into the moonlight, carrying the lame boy on her back, and with the glow‐worm like a little lamp within her hand. She was almost happy.
Prayers, innocent and in firm faith, brought the benediction of their own fulfilment. She was sure of that.
6. CHAPTER VI.
It was a sultry night northward.
There was a storm in the air, but it had not broken. The great lake was curled by the faintest of breezes. There was the smell of oranges—leaf and flower and fruit—upon the air. Little boats went sailing through the shadows. The constellations of the Winged Horse shone clear high up in the heavens, though all round the horizon the skies were overcast—the Horse that has a star for his nostril, and that is plumed with strong desire, and that says to the poet, “Mount, and ye shall enter the realms of the sun with me, and ride also through the endless night where Persephone lies sighing.”
Signa—who did not know the stars by any name, but loved them as all dreamers do, and [Page 88] held them in that wistful awe which was with him one half the terror of a child, one half the wonder of a thinker—was drifting in a little boat over the quietness of the water, and looking up at Pegasus.
They were giving his music at Como; and they were about the bring the Lamia out in Milan. He went where his music went, as the way is in this country. But the small strife of the theatres, and the contentious and envious revilings, and the men and women with whom he had to do were all painful to him: too rough, too real, too coarse for him. He broke from them whenever he could, and they had ceased to try and alter him; he was no more fit for their world, they saw, than a young nightingale for a gay brawling street. They laughed at him—which he seldom knew, or knowing did not heed—and let him live in his own fashion as he liked, and made their money out of him, and said all genius was no better after all than an inspired idiotcy, and he was such a boy: only a little peasant still, though he had so sweet a face and so soft a grace.
Signa was careless of them—utterly careless.[Page 89]
He was so purely, naturally, innocently happy, that nothing could much stir or trouble him. All the noise around him was like the sound of a whirlpool to a child seated high on the rocks, who hears it, but only sees the silver seagulls and the sunshine. All the fret of their life could not hurt him; he saw only the dreams and the destinies of his own.
What was beautiful to him in those long months of wandering were not the pleasures which his associates found; he hardly cared even for the praise that made his pilgrimages triumphs. What was beautiful to him were the changing mountains, the fresh wide waters, the unknown old cities, the treasuries of lost arts, the noble churches, the silent monasteries, the lonely little towns that had all some wonder of stone or of colour; the delicious free sense, as of a bird’s flight, with which he was borne from place to place, filling his brain with memories, as a child its hands with flowers, thinking each new one found still lovelier than the last.
He drifted now in his little boat: a fisherman rowed him from point to point along the shores. [Page 90] He had talked to the man till they were both tired; going with the current, little movement of the oars was needful; the man sat mute, thinking of his haul of fish of that morning; Signa lay back looking up at the radiance of Pegasus.
He did not know it as the constellation that belongs to all who dream of any art, but its stars shone down on him with a bright serene light, and he thought how they were shining too upon the water and the hills about his home.
His heart always went back to the Lastra.
His fondest fancy was of what should be the manner of his return to it; to raise works of marble like the palaces he saw, and live a great life in peace and pleasure, with a choir of young singers like himself around him, and the love of all the country with him.
He was so young still; such dreams were possible to him. His hands were filled with the fast fading laurels of earth, but he believed them the changeless asphodels of heaven.
The life of Rossini, had he seen it close, would have hurt him like a blasphemy.[Page 91]
To Signa—reared in simple religious faiths, half pagan, half monastic, which were quite real to him—victory was obligation.
God had given him his desire; so he thought. He said always to himself, “What can I render back?”
In so many things he was only a little peasant still.
The boat floated along, rocked gently on the liquid darkness.
He watched the stars, and dreamed, and dreamed, and dreamed, and seemed to see again, white upon the shadow, a statue he had seen that day at noon: the Love and Psyche of Canova.
Canova—whose soul was dead when he moulded the lascivious charms of the Borghese Venus and the poor vulgar graces of the Dancing Girls—has put all his soul into this marble.
For one moment, in his vision of the face of Love, he has reached the height where the Greek sculptors reign alone.
In the face of Love there is the very heaven of passion—all its longing, all its languor, all its ineffable abandonment and yearning, all its ab‐ [Page 92] solute oblivion, which makes it live only in one other life, and would let the earth dissolve and the heavens shiver as a burnt scroll, and take no heed, so that “only from me this be divided never.”
The boy had watched the statue long, with a strange sense of something missed in his own young years—something unknown; and like a hot wind over him had come the memory of the dancing girl of Istriel.
He had hated that memory, yet there it came.
Her face effaced the softer face of Psyche: Psyche, who is not worthy Love in the marble, as in the fable of the lamp.
Floating along the shores of the lake he dreamed of the statue; only, do what he would, instead of Psyche he saw always the form of the dancer of Istriel. And the boy in his ignorance smiled, remembering the warnings of Bruno.
“What does he know?” he thought, “living on his hill there. All men love—the lowest and the highest. One would be greater surely in all ways, not lesser—if one loved.”
For he did not know that Love will only reach [Page 93] his height by treading all other things beneath his foot. He did not know that Love lends a fire divine to human souls only by burning all their world to waste.
The boat paused at a bend in the shore, grated a little, and then was fastened to the land.
Signa leapt out with the fresh cool leaves smiting him sweet blows upon his eyes and mouth. They had reached the little village where he liked to sleep and see the dawn break over the lake better than to remain in Como, where the singers drank, and laughed, and quarrelled until daybreak, and thought it ill of him unless he joined them.
The boat went on to where the rower lived;—Signa strolled a little on the shore. It was not late, and he could see the white‐walled cottage where he had house room amongst its orange‐trees and myrtles, and he wished to watch the storm which, country‐born and hill‐bred as he had been, he knew was rising, though the lake was still.
The village stood on a small creek: its woods and thickets went to the water’s edge; it was a [Page 94] wilderness of roses. It had a little white church, with one bell; several huts and houses of peasants and fisherpeople; and a few villas that were sought by summer idlers and by rich strangers towards the early autumn time.
Signa walked on the edge of the water, his feet in roseleaves and fallen jessamine flowers: the shore was all a garden, wild or cultured according as the proprietor of the soil were poor or rich.
He wandered along till he lost sight of the roof of his own little dwelling, listening to the soft lapping of the little waves upon the stones and the splash of distant oars.
All at once he paused. He saw a statue in the water through the leaves—at least, the thought it so.
It was the white figure of a woman, half clothed in close clinging draperies, which with her right hand she held upward to her knees; with the other hand she was gathering her hair into a great knot; her naked feet were in the shining water; her arms were bare too. She was quite still at the moment he saw her first, as though awaiting [Page 95] something; the moon had come out of a heavy cloud, and fell on her, so that she looked a piece of sculpture, white as Psyche was.
Then, tired of holding up her hair, she let it fall in a sudden shower, thrust the boughs of the wild roses apart, and stepped from the pebbles and the water on the shore. The movement brought her face to face with Signa.
He saw she was no statue, but a woman; young and living, and impatient of some delay; dripping with water, which ran from her hair and limbs in silvery rain, and made her white thin garments cling to her. She had been bathing in the solitude of her gardens, into which he unwittingly had strayed.
Signa stood still and gazed at her, too much amazed, too startled, too confused, to move or speak. His face flushed with shame—shame for himself and shame for her.
“Forgive me,” he murmured; but his feet were rooted to the ground, his heart beat so loudly it seemed to him to fill the air. The woman—all white there, with her shining limbs and shining hair tangled in the thickets of the [Page 96] roses, with her wet small feet like ivory upon the moss—he thought it all a dream.
She had started, too; then she looked at him with a smile slowly uncurving the rose leaves of her close pouted lips. She was in no wise embarrassed. She stood looking at him with the moonrays full upon her, making the water‐drops like pearls.
Then she laughed.
A pretty laughter pealing through the garden silence, she shook her hair over her like a veil, her white arms and bosom shining through it as through a golden network, like cobwebs in the sun., (sic)
Another woman ran quickly up to her with breathless excuse for absence, holding a scarlet shawl in her outstretched arms. She let it be wrapped round her, and turned away, looking at Signa through her hair.
“Stay there,” she said to him; “stay there, and string a romance upon me. I am wet—I was bathing. I will come back. Stay there!”
He stood there, stupefied and entranced, as she had bidden him; not sure, still, whether it were [Page 97] a woman indeed, or only a statue that his fancy warmed.
He was not sure that all was not a trick of his own imagination, and of the sudden shining of the moon out from the dark night.
He stood, bewildered and breathless, listening with throbbing pulses to every noise in the leaves and on the water. If she were a living creature, she had bade him wait.
For his life he could not have moved away.
He felt hot with shame for her if she were indeed a living thing.
Strange stories he had heard in the old folk‐lore of the Lastra—where people believe in many an eerie phase of the night side of nature—came over him with a shiver. What human thing could have looked half so white? or could have borne his gaze without a blush? or could have laughed straightly in his face as she had done?
His brain was giddy, his heart beat high;—he glanced up to find his stars, but they were gone—the clouds had covered them. The rose‐boughs rustled, the grasses seemed to thrill, the shallow water shimmered at his feet. Would she come [Page 98] back, or had she only mocked him? Was she like the beautiful white woman who cannot forget her crimes, but wakes from her grave and strays all night through the great forsaken gardens of the Medici? He shuddered as he thought—he who had been reared where the people believe in the ghostly wanderings of Bianca Capella.
He longed for her back again, and yet he feared her. He strained his eyes to watch for her in the gloom, and yet he was afraid—afraid as he had never been in his childhood going in the darkness over the lonely hill‐lands peopled with the spirits of the dead, as peasants told him.
It might have been hours that he waited there, it might have been but moments; he could not tell which, he had no sense of time; but the moon was still shining when he saw her.
She came under the leaves of the orange‐trees through the crossing rose‐boughs to him; she was still wrapped in white—some glistening thing with silver in it, like a spider’s web that has caught the dew; her wet hair fell over her shoulders; her feet were shod in soft white furs; she had put a string of pearls about her throat, which [Page 99] gleamed a little as snow does as she moved; she came through the shining moonlit leaves, bending down towards him and smiling.
“I have come back. Why, how you look! I was too wet to stay. I know you—yes. I saw you last night, and once before in Venice. Signa! Why, how you look!”
He fell at her feet, touching the hem of her white robe with tremulous timid hands, and gazing up at her with eyes of doubt and fear and adoration, because she was so wonderfully fair to look at, and yet he was afraid of her as of a creature not of earth and not of heaven, just such a lovely terrible thing as that which walked at midnight in the old green gardens of the Medici.
“What are you?” he murmured with the soft grace of a poet’s homage. “You know me—you? Oh, speak a little! Are you my Lamia, that I have dreamed of so often? Or are you Psyche that I saw at noon? You cannot be a living thing, you are too beautiful.”
She stooped, and with her soft, cool hands ruffled the thick hair falling on his brow, [Page 100] and laughed and threw a rose against his lips.
“Lamia! Psyche! They are dead: I live. Know you! Of course I know you. And when I saw you at Venice I was glad; only I said ‘he shall not see me yet—not yet.’ And was it all mere chance to‐night? I thought perhaps you knew, and came. No? Why, how you look! But, indeed, how should you know me? I was a little ragged thing. How well it was we ran away that fair‐day, and how sad you were, and how you cried; and yet I made you play. Poor Signa!”
She, stooping still above him, put her fresh lips to his hair and kissed him on the eyes; and then she laughed again, and then again she leaned to kiss him.
But Signa had sprung upward to his feet.
His face was very pale; his eyes had horror in them and amaze.
“Gemma!” he muttered. “Gemma! Gemma!”
A cloud of anger gathered on the fairness of her face.[Page 101]
“Yes, I am Gemma. Well?”
He said the little familiar name again and again, stupidly, as a man says a charm, gazing upon her in the moonlight. He had looked for her among the poor maidens of the working world, amongst the crowds at mass; he had thought often of finding her lonely, longing for home, repentant of her flight, living in some little nook among the roofs, making her daily bread by some sad means; and he had dreamed of how he would raise her up and take her back and crown her with his laurels and make her glad, And this was Gemma.
This beautiful thing unshamed, who came to him wet from the water and laughed, with the moonlight on her wet, half naked limbs. This was Gemma.
She was silent. A great anger obscured the beauty of her face, but there was a touch of shame with it. Her hands tore a rose asunder and threw the leaves on either side of her. She had looked for the passionate rapture with which all her years were full: this mute [Page 102] rebuke in its gentleness smote her dully like a blow.
He stood looking at her with a dazzled, bewildered pain; he was not certain that he was awake; he thought of Palma, praying for her sister and sure she was with Christ.
“Gemma! Is it you, Gemma?” he murmured. “You were a little ragged thing—you were so poor, and now you have those pearls about your throat. Palma was sure you were in heaven, but I said no. I always said that I would Hind you, only I thought so differently. I always hoped—so lonely, so penniless, so sorrowful for them all at home; and then I thought how I would take you back, and we would love you all the better for the sorrows you had had. And now you are like this. Ah, God!”
His voice shook, his lips trembled; the words were all incoherent, confused, almost foolish; but she knew all he meant.
“Poor! lonely! sorrowful!” she echoed; and her azure eyes laughed back at him, though they had more rage than mirth. “You thought I [Page 103] should be that?—I? Did I not get the things I wanted always? You forget.”
“That is what Bruno said,” he muttered; and was still.
She had forgotten nothing; nor had she forgiven anything, child though she had been.
When Bruno had dragged her off the sands by the sea away from the gifts and the praises of the great people, she had marked it in her thoughts, a thing to be avenged. Between the manhood of Bruno and her babyhood there had been always war.
“Your father died in Lent,” said Signa suddenly. He did not know what to say. He fancied still she was some shadowy thing that mocked him in the moonlight, not Gemma living.
She looked grave and troubled for a moment.
“Died! He was not old?”
“No, he was not old.”
He echoed the words unconsciously. He did not know what he felt. His heart seemed stifled. He caught her hands in his.
“Oh, Gemma! is it true? Oh, my dear, speak [Page 104] to me more! I never have forgotten you, Gemma. After my music I loved you best of anything; yes, better than Bruno, I think—heaven forgive me! You were a little troublesome, cruel child, but you were—Gemma. Oh dear, it cannot be—you did not seem to have any woman’s shame about you just now looking at me in the water; and then those pearls, and all this dainty, delicate stuff like silver. Gemma, oh Gemma! tell me for the good God’s sake, you are not a thing that your father can never meet in heaven? You are not—lost to us all for ever?”
Her eyelids were dropped as he spoke, and there was not light enough for him to see the changes that passed over her face; anger, contempt, derision, trouble, amusement, all following one another; each and all moved in her by his simple words, but none reaching any depth.
She hesitated a moment how to answer him, he seemed to her so foolish—oh, so foolish! and yet she did not wish for his disdain or his rebuke. She thought she would cheat him just a little while—to see.
She looked at him with the old pouting anger [Page 105] on her lovely mouth, the anger he had known so well when the little child in the gardens of the Giovoli was thwarted in her whim.
“You are very quick to judge me ill,” she murmured.
“Ah, dear, if I judge you wrong, may God heap coals of fire on my head. But what can I think, Gemma? Answer me; answer me truly. I could not hate you, Gemma, not if you were fallen to the vilest depths. Palma might. I do not know—I could not. Oh, my dear, do tell me truly, what fate have you found in the world? What thing have you become? When they said that you were dead, I loathed myself for letting you have your way that morning, and so letting you drift to your own misery; but oh, my dear, my dear,—if it should be with you so that death at its worst would have been better! I do not judge you, Gemma; only tell me—tell me truth!”
He knelt down before her in his eagerness and pain; he held her hands; his face, as it looked up to hers, was white with fear and with anxiety.
She was so. lovely, too, above him in the [Page 106] shadows, with the rose‐boughs caught against her and the wet gold of her hair touching the silvered orange‐leaves.
“Am I not beautiful, Signa?” she murmured. “The rest? What does the rest matter—for a woman?”
“Oh, God! Is that all you say?”
He rose again to his feet. Almost he hated her, this perfect shameless thing. And yet she was so beautiful. Looking at her, he shaded his eyes as from the sun or the heat of fire.
“Poor Palma!” he muttered. “Day and night she prays Christ for your soul.”
Gemma smiled—a soft, slow smile.
Then she looked at him full in the eyes. She did what she would with any man, that way.
“You are too quick to judge. Come back to‐morrow; to the house yonder. Now it is nearly morning. I am cold still after the water. I bathe by moonlight because a negress told me I should keep my beauty so; there is a charm in it. Good‐night. Oh, you will come—yes, I know that. No! Do not stop me. I am [Page 107] cold, I say. Good‐night—come back to‐morrow.”
She drew her white clinging clothes out from his grasp, and laughed a little; for indeed she was amused, though troubled, and put the orange‐boughs aside and threw another rose at him and went: whither he could not see, the night had grown quite dark.
“Gemma! Gemma! stay!” he cried to her. “If you be Gemma, do not leave me so!”
But he called to her in vain. He was alone.
The first thunder of the coming storm rolled over from the mountains, a shrill wind blew on the lake water, the rain drops fell.
She left him to meet the tempest as he might. Wet through, he reached with difficulty the little cottage higher by the shore.
It was dawn; but the dawn was darker than the night had been.
The hurricane was severe, and the sullen lake wrecked more than one boat that in the moonlight had danced lightly on its smiling surface.
Signa did not even try to sleep.
He watched the storm.
7. CHAPTER VII.
There were thunder and lightning and wild north winds all over land and sea, even to the great plains on either side, the Apennines.
The storm travelled as far as the Valdarno, reaching there by morning, and men watched the rivers, fearing flood again, and farmers thanked the saints that maize harvest and vintage had been safely passed.
Palma, working in the fields for a small wage above upon the slopes, and driven to seek refuge from the violence of the weather, sheltered herself in S. Sebastian’s little church, where the sheep also huddled together out of reach of the rain.
She was not afraid.
She told her beads and said her prayers as the [Page 109] blue lightnings flashed around her, and the winds howled.
“Dear God, keep him safe from harm,” she prayed. “And let Gemma who is with you, where no storms come, watch over him.”
8. CHAPTER VIII.
Meanwhile, the woman of his vision let her people unclothe her, and she lay down in her white soft bed, and thought: the storm might beat without, she paid no heed to it; it might wreck boats, flood fields, kill birds and beasts and butterflies, send men and women homeless over ravaged farms—but her it could not hurt. Why should she think of it?
She was amused, and yet there was disquiet at her heart.
She hated all the old dead time; hated the bare memory of it:—of its hunger, of its cold, of its hardship, of her little naked feet, of her dirty, merry, kindly father, of her bed of hay, of her platter of wood. She hated it all; and it had [Page 111] sprung up before her suddenly till it all seemed alive.
She liked never to think of it—never. It was for this that in Venice, seeing her old playmate the hero of the hour, she had left the city whilst still unknown to him.
And yet she had wanted to show herself to him.
“Chance shall choose,” she said to herself, and when she had recognised him in the moonlight among the orange‐leaves she had walked straight to him.
She was glad upon the whole; though ruffled, and disturbed, and angered, too, because of his strange way of taking things.
It made her lie awake and think of the old years, and the skill with which she, a little hungry ragged child, one amongst many, had got to have her beauty known all over many cities, and to have those big pearls—big as linnets’ eggs—about her throat, when she was tired of her diamonds. But pearls best became her; that she knew. Older women have need of diameters to lend new lustre to dimmed charms; but she [Page 112] was fresh as any rose. And she was known as “Innocence.” So she wore oftenest her big pearls, that no empress could have beaten; as her sister peasants away in Tuscany wore their little seed‐pearls on feast‐days amongst the brown hillfields.
Lying awake now, with the blue of her eyes just gleaming under her curled lashes, she thought of that fair day in Prato, and of the sunny tamarisk trees by the shore, and of her struggle from the window, and her hurry across the wharves, and her escape in the brown‐sailed fishing‐smack that her captor had bribed to take them over the open sea.
She thought of how she had laughed and danced and clapped her hands as the rough old boat spread its wet sail, and rocked and tore before the wind that rose as the day declined, and blew hot and hard from the south‐east, while the man said to her, “No more black bread, my pretty pet: all cakes and fruit in the future.”
It had not been all cakes and fruit at first.
When he was sure of her he beat her. She bit his hand through. He tumbled her amongst [Page 113] a score of other children, older and younger, and took them to northern cities, and sent them about, some on stilts and in spangles, some with white mice and music, some with little statues—all thrashed, and starved, and made to do his bidding.
Her fate was what the Lastra fancied that it was, knowing how many children of this sort there are kidnapped, to shiver in the wet sad north.
But this endured only a very little while, with her.
She was so pretty. He knew her value. He would not leave her too hungry, or send her out in too cold weather. He knew that she was like a good wine, and would pay well for keeping.
One day, however, once more he beat her.
She darted into the street, and showed her little shoulders, and all the bruises, and sobbing drew a crowd grieved and indignant round her.
The crowd set on the man, and hounded him out of the town under a rain of stones; a good old woman took her home, weeping over her, and gave her a home.[Page 114]
That was three months after the fair at Prato, and took place in the town of Mechlin.
She lived there a few years like a little mouse in a sugar closet; the woman was aged, childless, and well off, keeping a lace shop in the midst of the beautiful, grave, quaint, grey little city.
She was petted, pampered, fed on dainties; she teased all the girls, and made all the boys slaves for her; she learned to read; she stole anything she wished for and could not get without stealing, and was either never found out, or else always forgiven; people said she had a face like the little Jesus.
Then she got tired. At Kermesse there came into the place a troop of players.
She went to see them.
The chief of them said to himself, “What a beautiful child!” and spoke to her a little later as she trotted to mass.
He tempted her to join them. She was too young to act, but she could sing a little. He said he would make pieces on purpose for her. She should just show herself; he said that would [Page 115] be enough. He painted the world and his wandering life in bright colours.
She pondered well, and weighed the matter, as her wont was, with solid sense, and no idle misleadings of fancy. She never dreamed. She only said to herself, “What is best for me?” and what she saw was best she chose.
If any one suffered by her doing, she said to them, as the ploughman to the flower, “Is it my fault that you grow in my way?”
Born in a little hut in the green leafy solitudes of a garden, she had been gifted at birth with the fine sense which leads straight to success: the sense of the paramount claims of self.
She pondered awhile till the players were on the wing; then she took a pretty quantity of the oldest and most delicate lace, some gold out of the till in the little shop, and all her clothes, and went with them, slipping out of the house at night whilst the old woman was sleeping.
“I can always go back if I want,” she thought. “She will always forgive me anything.”
And she ran out of the city to join her new [Page 116] friends outside the gates, with a heavy bundle but a light heart.
She was then thirteen.
The old woman who loved her, waking to her loss, would not believe that the child was to blame; and when people told her that the child had been seen going out of her own free will to the north, she would not credit them: robbers had taken the lace and the gold, and killed the child—that was her certainty. And being old, and all alone, and taking it too much to heart, she was never able to leave her bed again, and in a few weeks died of it.
Meanwhile the child throve.
The people she had joined were gay and good‐natured. and merry if not wise; and in their way well to do. They adored her. She did as she liked. For the lace she had taken no one molested her. She showed herself nightly in little bright laughter‐loving towns and cities. She had little to do, still less to say; they looked at her: that was quite enough.
She had not talent of any kind; but she had a shrewd sense that to let her lovely baby face [Page 117] look like a little angel‐s was enough: and it was so.
When she was nearly sixteen, the people went to play in the city of Paris. She said to herself, “Now!”
She refused to play with a true foresight—she would not cheapen herself. She put her old white Flemish lace all about her like a cloud; she looked half like a cherub, half like a nun. She went and strayed by herself through gilded gates into the first public gardens that she saw.
It was summer, and the alleys were full of people; they all looked after her; she thought how good a thing it was to live.
The painter Istriel met her.
He was rich.
The players saw her no more.
After three months he painted her as “Innocence” looking with wondering eyes upon the world.
Nature gave her loveliness; Istriel gave her fashion.
Three years later he painted her as the sister of the Seven Dancers.[Page 118]
But by that time he had had many rivals.
He professed content. He cherished bitterest remembrance.
She had only used him. He had loved her.
To others he seemed to have passed from her lover to her friend indifferently; himself he knew that jealousy would never die in him whilst she had life.
She knew it too. It diverted her.
It never prevented her from smiling on whosoever most pleased her caprices and most lavished upon her the wealth she loved.
For the rest, she was at the height of her supremacy, and she never let it make her dizzy; she kept the calm, wise, steady judgment of her own advantage that she had possessed even when a little child; and she cherished her loveliness, studied her health, moderated her follies, and garnered her riches with a wisdom most rare in her world of pleasure.
Many lost fortune, many their senses, some few their lives for her.
Nothing of that kind stirred her for a moment.[Page 119]
The vainest could not flatter himself that he owed her smile to anything except his jewels and his gold; the vainest could not deceive himself that she had ever loved him.
She loved herself; just as much now that she had the world at her feet, as when she had been a little child, eating the white currants and green almonds in her nest of hay.
Love, though the highest selfish ecstasy, must yet have self‐forgetfulness.
She had none.
She could enjoy. But she could not suffer.
“How much shall I tell him?” she thought, lying with half‐closed eyes watching the lights flicker over the ivory and silver of her mirror.
Why should she tell him anything? Why should she see him? She did not want him. To her he would never be anything but Signa; the little, silly, dreaming fellow that had run about for her, and given up his fruit for her, and fallen into fault uncomplainingly for her sake. She had made him her stepping‐stone to fortune; then had done with him: why not?[Page 120]
And yet now she had seen him, she did not choose to let him go.
He condemned her; he sorrowed over her; he rebuked her;—he!—who had been her little slave, running where she would, and doing her will in the summer dust of the Lastra.
With noon she was ready for him.
She was alone in the little lake palace.
It belonged to the painter Istriel.
When she wanted rest and seclusion she went to it, knowing how to keep her beauty fresh and render her favour more precious.
He was content that men should think his old ties with her not wholly broken.
He was now in the steppes of the North. He had visited her passing by. She always smiled on him. She was a little afraid of him.
Besides, she never turned any man against her; she only would have her own way always—that was all. She wore her lovers as she did her jewels: some had their turn often, some seldom, some for ever waited for a day that never came—but all were hers; she could shut them in the hollow of her rosy hand, as in [Page 121] the gardens of Giovoli she had held the butterflies.
She was never swept away on any strong tide; not even of caprice.
She kept her brain clear always.
She was not clever; but she had far sight.
She got all the best the world could give her, and was as calm amidst it all as a dormouse in its nest of wool. No one could quote a folly against her.
She walked wisely.
With noon they told her Signa had come there. She let him wait. She always let them wait. Waiting heightened the imagination and spurred expectancy. Besides she was never in any haste herself.
He had been shown into a little cabinet, which had statues in it and one great window looking on the lake.
He was standing when she entered.
He was very pale; he had been all daybreak on the shore, rendering what help he could against the storm which now had passed away entirely, and had gone southward.[Page 122]
They looked at one another a moment in silence; these two who had run together over the stony road, and ventured their little fortunes into the noisy press of Prato Fair.
Their fates had divided there, and yet the link of union never could be quite broken.
They looked at one another, remembering that hot, toilsome day when they had eaten their figs under the trees of the dead Medici; and when, in the tumult and the merriment of Fra Lippo’s town, she had laughed at his tears, and pulled him by his curls and whispered, “I am hungry—play—get me some cakes so. Do you hear me? Play!” And he had played.
She looked at him and thought, “He is not changed one whit; he is the same; only a boy still.”
He looked at her and thought, “Can she be Gemma? It is some goddess, dreamt of in the night.”
They had run hand in hand across the plain to Prato. But there were worlds, centuries, all the heights of heaven, all the depths of hell, between them now.[Page 123]
She put her hands out to him.
“Signa—dear Signa—sit by me.”
He took her hands and let them go.
“No. Tell me first.”
She sighed a little.
“You used to love me, Signa.”
“I loved a little child called Gemma—yes!”
“And I am Gemma.”
He was silent.
He would not sit by her. He was confused and blinded. Her loveliness lost nothing by the morning light.
But he felt to recognise her less than he had done in the dim shifting shadows of the night. She had no more in common with the little, sturdy, ragged, mischievous baby he had kissed in her bed of hay, than the butterfly seems to have to do with the chrysalis. He felt still that he must be in a dream; when he had fallen asleep over his score, in his half‐starving student days, such dreams had come to him.
“If you are Gemma, indeed,” he said with effort; “have you nothing to say of your own [Page 124] home; of your father, who died thinking of you; of your brothers, of Palma? Is that all forgotten? Do you never think?”
She would not let him see the anger in her.
“I was so young,” she murmured. “Children do not think.”
“No? Palma thinks. She said, ‘Gemma is dead. Else she never would be silent all these years.’ She prays for you”
“Is she in want of anything?”
“She wants everything. She works like a mule. But she would never take anything. Palma would be ashamed.”
Gemma put out her under lip with the sullen contemptuous gesture of her infancy. But she answered him gently.
“Palma was always good. Yes—I remember that. Poor Palma!”
“Gemma.—if you be Gemma—need Palma, for all your glory, be ashamed of you? Tell me: you said that you would tell me now?”
“Sit by me, and I will.”
“No! not till I know whose roof I find you under, and why you are—like this.”[Page 125]
“What is it to you?”
“Nothing. Only, if you are a base woman I want to see your face no more. I loved you when we were two little children. It would hurt me like a sister’s shame.”
He spoke simply and directly the thing he felt; he was calmer than he had been in the sultry, moonlit night; he was cooled as the air was; he felt oppressed and pained, but it was with sorrow for the little child that had run with him in the dust and heat, not for the woman that faced him with her shining eyes.
Over Gemma’s face rose a quick flush of anger and amaze; all her world envied her.
She had no sense of shame. Shame, like remorse, only visits women that are left alone.
Gemma played with all the glories of life, as a child with a ball of flowers.
She repressed the rage and wonder that she felt. She could assume what shape she would.
“If I were base,” she muttered, “might I not need more tenderness? You are two narrow, Signa; and too harsh.”[Page 126]
“I think so. You only love your music. You see nothing outside that.”
He was silent.
Was he harsh? He did not mean to be so. He had said what he had felt. If she were no longer innocent, he wished to go away and see her face no more. He had meant no bitterness.
“You do not understand,” he said, at last. “I blame no living thing; I am not wise enough. Only there are straight, simple things one feels about women like an instinct—just as when one keeps one’s honour clean—do you not know? You see—I have always thought about you; and reproached myself; and dreamed so much of finding you and taking you back to your own people; and when Bruno said, seeing the picture of a wanton dancer, ‘That is what your Gemma is now, if she be living,’ I almost hated him; it seemed to hurt me so; because, though you were wilful and liked your own way too well, yet I was sure you were too true and brave for that—and would have thought of [Page 127] Palma. Dear, if your life is honest—take my hand. If you be any man’s wife, and come by all this luxury‐and riches justly—dear, I will beg for your forgiveness on my knees. But else—what can I think?”
She was silent; a certain darkness fell upon her life. She was like the Syrian king; all the fairness and richness of her Palestine grew nought to her, because she was shut out from one little, narrow, lonely vineyard.
“What shall I say to him,” she thought. “What shall I say, to keep him?”
She wanted to keep him, and yet her heart was hard and sullen with rage against him. He had lifted the golden apples in her basket of silver, and had scorned them; she was astonished and dully angered.
But she was never swept away on any impulse, not even on that of anger, which was the strongest with her.
She looked up at last, and saw his eyes watch her with a piteous tender eagerness, and he held out his hands to her.
“I cannot take your hands,” she said; “no, not [Page 128] in fairness. And yet I am not to blame; not in the way you think. Signa, I owe you nothing. I need tell you nothing. Yet, because we were children together, as you say, I will tell you all the truth.”
And then she built him up a tale of lies—such as would touch him most. Poor Signa! whose face had paled if she had trapped a bird, whose heart had sorrowed for each kid that went to slaughter in the old times, when the Lastra and its green vine‐ways had been the only world to both of them.
To Bruno and his people he was changed utterly. They looked up at him from the twilight of their ignorance and obscurity. To her he was changed in nothing. She looked down on him from the broad noon day on the heights of her prosperity.
For five full years, she had studied the full world of men; to her he was only a boy, a peasant, a dreamer, a fool—inspired, perhaps; but only the greater fool for that.
Outside there was the shining beauty of lake, and wood, and mountain; within, the softly‐ [Page 129] shaded room, filled with paintings, statues, flowers. Gemma in her white robes of morning, dead white, such as made the fairness of her look like a rose set amongst lilies, turned a little from him, half lying amongst her cushions, and told him the story of her life from that day of the fair in Prato.
“Dear Signa, I was a little wilful selfish thing. I wanted to see a bigger brighter life than any we had upon our hills. The man persuaded me. He promised me all sorts of golden toys, and never‐ending feast‐days. Yes. He took me with him in that fishing smack. We were hidden in Genoa little while, then we went northward. We were treated like beaten dogs, once in his power. There were many other children. He sent us out in rain, and wind, and snow. To him it did not matter what we suffered. We sold images, or tumbled in the streets, or hawked flowers, or went with an organ. We wandered from town to town; all over the world sometimes, I think; we crossed seas often, and mountains; where I do not know; I was a little stupid thing. I was made black and blue with thrashing. Dear [Page 130] —I was punished for my selfish fault; punished beyond all telling. Night after night I cried myself asleep, longing for you, and Palma, and green Giovoli. In a few years the man sold me to a set of player people, low comedians, who went about with a travelling theatre, and dressed me up in spangles, and whipped me to make me dance. Nay, dear! how pale you look. Oh, it is all over—long ago. I had no talent. You know I never had talent as you had. Nature has made me so good to look at; it does not matter for the rest. I did not act well; I was just looked at, and of course I could jump and dance—you will remember that. You recollect old Maro from the Marches teaching us the salterello, and you and I dancing it every minute that we could? And at the fair, how pleased they were, and you, with the great tears running down your cheeks all the while you danced it. Ah, yes, yes, yes! Signa—it seems like yesterday.”
She paused a little while; and turned her head away still further; his heart ached for her; he longed to take her bands, and kiss her lips, and say, “We will forget that any time has passed;” [Page 131] but a dark wall seemed to him between them. He could not think of her, of this lovely woman in her wealth, as Gemma; little ragged rosy Gemma, pouting and laughing in his face in the Giovoli garden, because Tista had swung her so high, so high.
And even if she were indeed Gemma, as she said, and as her remembrance proved, what could he say to her—until he knew?
The sense around him of her golden shame stifled him, and kept him mute. He felt as Palma would have felt. It was not this woman that he cared for; it was his little playmate lost on the sands of the Mediterranean sea.
“I was sold to these players,” she said; “sold just as a monkey might be, or a goat that knew some tricks. They sold me in their turn to others. I was made into little Loves, and had wings, and looked pretty; or else danced in pretty costumes; we went here, and there, and everywhere; they treated me well, and I liked it. I knew no better. I had sweetmeats, and fruit, and fine words. It was all good enough, and merry enough, I thought. You know of old, if [Page 132] all went well, I did not want to look further; and indeed, what did I know? or what could I have done? A child all alone, and a thousand miles, they said, away from home! Amongst them I learned to read, and learned some few other things. I do not know much, except the world. That is so big a book, you know; one does not want another. Signa, try and understand. Do not be harsh; I was not great of heart, and near to heaven, as you were when you were a child; nor plodding, and honest, and loving the saints, like Palma. I loved—myself. And wanted to enjoy. God made me such a weak and selfish thing. You know he makes bees and butterflies. Dear, I was in so bad an air; it reeked with shamelessness; if you had anything to sell, your body or your soul, you sold it, and spent the money; why not? they said. When I was sixteen they betrayed me; we were in Vienna, then; there was a woman that I trusted. Oh, it is a common thing; quite common. When I knew the thing that they had made me, I grew blind and reckless; I was turned to stone, only stone that shut a devil in it, as the marble [Page 133] shuts a toad sometimes, they say. He who had bought me, bought me stupefied, like any moth you kill with sulphur smoke; was rich and a great man in his way. He covered his new toy with diamonds and gold. I grew the fashion. You have fame. That is another thing. Fame is a comet burning itself with its own fire as it travels. Fashion is the wax‐light in a ball‐room. I like the ball‐room best. You see space, and all the worlds set round about what men will call the throne of God, no doubt. But I—”
She laughed a little: she had forgotten for the moment that she did not mean to let him see the truth of her—not then; whatever afterwards might come.
He listened; his breath came brokenly; his lips were dry. He raised his head, and gazed at her, almost blankly.
“You can jest!”
The words recalled to her the thing she wished to seem to him.
“Yes. I jest; if you call that jesting. I saw a man once watch his house burn, the fire took his children, and made him a beggar; he laughed. [Page 134] So I laugh. Oh, my dear! they have not left me any heart—to laugh or cry. I would say, I pray they have not; if I were you or Palma. But then I never had much. I loved myself, you will remember that. Such love is punished. So your priests say. Well, you see now how it was with me: sixteen years old; a chattel purchased; a decked slave; a ruined thing made glorious with gilding. I am not meek, I am not good. Signa, you knew me when we were both babies. You knew I had no mercy nor gentleness to others, even then. I saw myself base, by no fault of my own. I saw myself marked out with a brand, proscribed, outcast, whilst I was myself as innocent as any yearling lamb we ever played with on the hill at home. Well I did not drown myself. I was too full of life. I looked at my own face in the mirror, and I loved it. I could not give it to the water‐rats to gnaw. You love your music. I love my loveliness. Why is one love, one vanity, worse than the other? Can you tell me? Nature put the rhythm into your brain. It put the beauty in my body. Well, why should the love of one be holiness in [Page 135] you, the other sin in me? But sin or not, I have it. If disease made me hideous, or accident, then I would kill myself with smoke or opiates, or some easy gentle means of death. Not otherwise. No; I did not kill myself when I knew the thing I was. Your women of romance do; but, for me, I shrink from being hurt; I hate the thought of lying underground and leaving all the rest to laughter in the sunshine. To cease to be—it is horrible! Oh, not for you who think that death will set your spirit free and carry it straight to some great world where all your dreams made true are waiting you; aye, but for us? We have only our bodies, and we dread the worms. No; I did not kill myself. I took my vengeance, I made myself the loveliest thing the world has seen for ages. They all say so. Then I melted their hearts and broke them. I slew them with a hair of the dog that had torn me. Dear, do not judge me harshly. I took solace in the strength I had; such strength as women like me have; we share it with the snake and with the panther. Your God made snakes and panthers.”[Page 136]
She paused; the boy was quiet; his chest rose and fell with painful breathing; his lips were cold and white; he was saying always to himself:
“Who was the man—at first?”
For he felt as if for Palma, and for poor dead merry Toto, and for his own honour’s sake, the avenging of her ought to be his own work and no other’s; had he not let her go with him that day, a little thoughtless child, over the hill and plain to Prato?
He pitied her from the bottom of his heart.
He believed the tale she told.
And he was sick with the giddiness of one who falls through mountain air from some great height. He lost his footing. He lost his hold upon the dreams and hopes of life. He was cast down from the pure simple certainty which never asked:
because he was so very sure of both.
And now he was sure of nothing.
“God makes snakes and panthers.”
Yes; and God had let Gemma be made vile, [Page 137] with no fault in her, no sin or seeking of her own;—so he thought.
He grew dizzy. He, who had said to Palma, for her sister’s sake:
“Dear, pray always. Prayers are heard,”
“Oh, my dear! oh, my poor lost love!” he murmured, and bowed his young head upon her knees; his frame shook with pain and the shock of the first burning rage that had ever touched him.
He was bewildered. Horror possessed him. The simple, innocent affection he had kept for her shuddered and grieved for her, as a brother’s would have done. He had kept Gemma in his fancy and his hope so pure, and safe, and strong. The darkness of this irreversible fate spread over her, and made her terrible to him. Signa had all the childlike belief in heaven that a child has in its father; this struck his belief at the roots. God was good, and yet let such things be! God was great, and yet would be for ever powerless to make this horror as though it had never been! There were things then that even God could not do? Signa stared helpless at this wreck of all his faiths.[Page 138]
She watched him, reading him as easily as she would have read gold letters on a white page.
By years their ages were the same, but she, in the world’s knowledge, already was so old,—so old; and he in his unworldliness and ignorance, was yet so young.
She knew the ways of men at their worst, their wisest, their best, their basest, and turned them over in her head as a child does the wooden letters of a mastered alphabet.
He of woman, knew hardly anything.
“You hear my story now,” she said, with a soft sigh, at last. “Signa, you loathe me?”
He shuddered a little.
“From my soul—I pity you.”
A sort of loathing was in him for her, but how could he say that? Whatever she had become, she had once been the little Gemma that he had kissed in her rough bed of hay.
Her eyelids were cast down; he did not see the cold blue flame of anger burn in her eyes a moment as she heard.
She to be pitied! she who, in her arrogance [Page 139] and her loveliness, thought she had the world to play with as a ball under her foot!
She turned her eyes upon him.
“So, you will leave me? You mean that?”
He coloured to his throat.
“You live still, by choice—in shame?”
She could have laughed aloud. She could have dashed her hand against his mouth. She could have killed him—almost; but she said, turning her thee from him, like one in pain of which she is ashamed:
“What other life was left me? Fling wool in mud; do you blame the fleece that it grows black? I told you I took my vengeance. There was no other thing to do. You do not understand the world. I was so young, and men so cruel. Wrong made me all that I have been, but I am tired; oh, so tired, Signa; if you only knew! A world of lovers and not one single friend. The loneliest woman is not so desolate as I. Dear, I am vile, perhaps, and cold, and love luxury too well; and if I were born with any heart in me, have killed it. That is what they say. I think it is quite true. There is no love anywhere for me. [Page 140] Love for me is the imperial beast that kissed and slew. Love: I laugh at the word, I dance on it, I spit at it. Judas loved;—and that great empress who wallowed in the mire with her guards and slaves!. What did they call her? I never loved a living thing. How should I? The only love that I have ever seen is a devouring beast with fire in his entrails and slime upon his mouth. That is the only love that over comes to me. Dear, I am tired. When I saw your face last night, I said in my own thoughts, I will tell him all the truth; he is not as the others are; he was a baby with me in the old green garden ways; he will understand; he will have sorrow for me; he will be true to me, when all are false; he will be my saint, when all others are my swine; he will despise me, lament for me, rebuke me; yes, no doubt; but he will not leave me utterly—for the sake of the old days when we were children. That is what I thought. Oh dear! I was unwise and you are wise. Fly from me, There is no common ground between us. You cannot see in me the thing you used to play with. I am only a base light wanton woman, without charm for you [Page 141] and without pardon either from you and from your God. Dear, you are right. To see more of me could only bring you pain or get you evil names. Pure dreams are your fair portion. Foul facts are mine. Leave me. I would not have you stay, though you are all of home or heaven that I shall ever see in life. Go and tell Palma not to plead to Christ for me. Her words are wasted. I am in hell, though living; let me be.”
She rose as she spoke and pushed him from her with a gesture of farewell.
The consummate art of her took every hue and grace of nature; her face was pale and cold; down her cheeks tears rolled and dropped upon the laces on her breast.
She knew the chords to touch in him; she played on him as he could play on any lute or violin.
She stung the generous sweetness of his nature; she stirred all his tenderness of pity.
Had he been cruel and self‐righteous in his instincts of disgust? Had he been unmanly and unfeeling; wounding a dishonoured woman, [Page 142] whose truthfulness had laid her open to his scorn?
A confused sense of being wrong to her oppressed him, and struggled with the natural impulse of his aversions, with his instinct never to look on her or be touched by her or hear the sound of her voice again.
A nature, generous and yielding, accused of meanness or selfishness, flew at a rebound to the unwisdom of self‐sacrifice.
“I had no thought of myself,” he murmured, pierced to the quick. “But between us there is such a gulf: what can I do? what can I say? I cannot see you lead this life, and come to you, and be in fellowship with the men who ruined you, or the men you fool? To me you are—Gemma; it is as if you were my sister. It is horrible. I do not know what to say to you. It seems to me we cannot be together now.”
“I said that you were right in saying so. Right—for yourself. Go; who keeps you, Signa? Not I. Go.”
She spoke coldly, sadly; he thought he heard [Page 143] in her the heart‐sick resignation of a woman from whom all good is banished, yet who cleaves to it.
The tender, unthinking, unwise ardour of his nature carried him away; he dropped before her on his knees as if she had been any saint or queen. His sweet and passionate voice thrilled with emotion.
“If I can serve, I will not leave, you,” he said. “Gemma, listen to me. You are heart sick of the wretched glories of your life. All the better nature in you is in rebellion at it. Leave it. Come home. You shall be to me as a sister. This horror shall be buried in our hearts. Throw your gold away; it brings the plague with it; strip your jewels off; keep nothing but the beauty that God gave you, and that you defile. Come back to the old hills, to the fresh air, to the green country ways, to the peaceful days and nights. Come back. Palma is there; she will love you still. Her arms are strong enough, her faith is firm enough, to lift you out of hell. Dear, fling this horror from you and trample on it, and leave men, and cling to God. I have some great‐ [Page 144] ness. I can make enough to keep you safe from want. You shall be to me ever as if you were a sister—lost and found. This beast you talk of, and that in your madness you call Love, shall never reach you, nor hurt you there. Come home. Palma is poor and ignorant, working for a crust, but she is strong in courage, and wiser than us all. She will suffer, but she will help you always. I look at you; you blind me: I do not know you. You seem to me one of those lovely lying things that Satan made and sent into the wilderness to tempt the saints. But if you are not that—if indeed you ever were the little Gemma that ran with me in the summer dust that day‐come home. Oh, Gemma, Gemma! if indeed you are the little child I played with, joy there never can be for you, dear, nor hope on earth, nor any love of any honest man, I know; but Palma will not turn from you, nor I. It is too late to save your beauty from the lepers—it is plague‐stricken. God himself cannot change that—but, Gemma, there is life beyond this life. I seem to speak so poorly, I cannot plead with you—not as I would. But, Gemma, the soul in [Page 145] you is not dead. Cast off these riches that are viler than all rags, and lead a straight and simple life, and trust the rest to God. Come home!”
He spoke in all his innocence, knowing no better.
A stray sunbeam shot across the shadow of the room, and fell on his fair upturned forehead and the misty radiance of his supplicating eyes. To him she was terrible; to him she was plague‐stricken;—almost he thought her, as he said, one of those beautiful accursed things the devil loosed on earth to tempt the minds of men in deserts, and sting their senses, and destroy their lives, and level them with the beasts that perish. Still,—if he could save her? He prayed with her for herself, as in his childhood he had prayed for Satan to the angels, watching the sun shine beyond the Certosa towers.
She listened, her beautiful golden head bent down, her colour changing; do what she would, she could not keep the blood quite steady in her cheek. She was so deeply angered. Yet some pain smote her through all the jewelled armour of her tranquil self‐content.[Page 146]
Had she lost something after all that poor dull women, plodding for their bread, lived with and died with?—had she missed something in all her plenteous harvest, were it only a vain vague fancy, worth the having?
She had princes and heroes, all greatness, at her feet, and all the soft ease and peace and triumph that she craved;—yet for one instant the whole world seemed to grow as nothing to her if she had this boy’s scorn, this boy who had runran (sic) with her over the brown fields of the hills through the autumn weather, when the crocus‐cup and the dragon‐weed had been the only gold they owned.
He was a fool; yet—some fools stand near to heaven.
The tears scorched her cheeks. Not such tears as she had summoned at her will a moment earlier, fair tricks of studied arts; but quick, salt, bitter drops, that burned her as they fell.
They angered her. The rage in her grew as much against herself as him.
“He shall know no heaven but me,” she said [Page 147] in her own heart. “He shall live on my kiss, and die because he loses it. He is a fool—a fool!”
And yet—were she but such a fool!
For the moment she would have given all her empire to have been no wiser and no guiltier than he.
He did not know. He only saw her cheek grow pale, her proud mouth tremble.
“You hear me?” he murmured; “you will come?”
She was silent mastering the rage within her and the new strange pain. The pain passed—the rage lived. She said to herself:
“There is no honesty upon my lips. Well, he shall find some sweeter thing there, and get drunk on it.”
She had meant to have sport with him. Well, sport with vengeance in it, was the finer pastime. It was his fault. Why should he speak of her as of a thing he scorned? To bring his babyish, monkish, womanish fancies here, of honour and shame, and heaven and sins:—sick phantasies from dying peasants’ psalters and priests’ penance‐tales in Lent![Page 148]
She gazed down on him with serious eyes.
“No; I cannot come, Signa. You are good to me, but the things you dream of are not possible—for me, at least. You do not understand. I should make Palma mad; she me. I could no more go back to the old ways of life than you to a herdboy’s empty days. Things cannot be undone. When a tree is grown, you may cut it down and burn it, but you cannot make it back into the acorn or the chestnut that it sprang from first. Palma thinks me safe with the saints;—so let her. For you—you have your art, your fame, your certain growth of greatness. You can soon forget me. Dear, I fretted you and flouted you when we were children. That was all, I think, ever. It is but little to regret.”
“It is because I have no words to move you, to awake your soul—”
“If you were an angel from heaven you would say nothing that could change me. And do not think of any soul in me, Signa; I have none. Has the butterfly any? You are mad, Signa! I was an idle child—I am an idle woman. I love ease, luxury, riches, beauty. I toil! I hunger [Page 149] and thirst, and spin and sew! I plod after the oxen in the furrows! I! You are mad! You are mad, I say!”
His colour rose.
“There would be no need to toil. It would be a poor and simple life—yes; that is true. But I could make enough—I shall make more each year. All that I have should be for you. And it is honest money. Gemma—see, dear—I have always thought of you, and dreamed of you, and meant to seek you out and take you back, and set you in the midst of every greatness I could get. When the great ladies courted me, I did not care for them. I thought, somewhere there is a little girl with golden curls I used to kiss;—for I forgot that you grew old as I did. When men talked of love to me I would say nothing, but I used to think—“when I find Gemma.” Dear, that is over now. I cannot love you. You are a thing lost to me now for ever. Men do not love such women as you are. You are divided from me for ever. But you still are dear to me as if you were my sister. I would not touch your mouth with any kiss, for you have sold its kisses; I [Page 150] would not take your hand in mine, for you have perjured it; I would not, starving, break a crust of yours, for you are sold for it. But I will labour for you all my life; I will set away each coin I get for you; I will never have any joy, or mirth, or love in all my years, that I may work the better for you, and the oftener give you more. Dear, do not think it will be hard for me. You know I was reared hardly. I can live on nothing; and I can pass by woman’s love and all that delights and leads away men most, because, in truth, the only thing I love is my great art. In this I have been given so much, that I can easily renounce the rest. Dear, do not think that it will be anything to me. Men have lived so in monasteries—lived and died happily. Gemma, if you will come back—listen—I swear to you I will dedicate all my life to yours. There is the shame of you between us two for ever like a grave. But since you never can be anything to me more than the dead are, no other creature shall be anything—that I swear, too. Dear, listen! After God and my music, you are most dear to me—yes, even as you are. Let me work [Page 151] for you. Say you have no soul, as the rose has none; yet when a rose has blossomed with us who can throw it in the sewer? And you are wrong: a soul you have, for I have seen your tears. Oh, heaven! What word can I find to tell you how utterly I mean the thing I say? Gemma—if I had done right, and had refused to let you go with me that day to Prato, you would be living with your sister still,—an innocent, frank, happy, stainless thing; and I should love you, and you would be all my own. This misery is of my act. I let you go that day. Your shame has come of it; and I can never even kiss you, dear, because there is no honesty upon your lips. But take you out of your dishonour and save your soul, I can—I will. Gemma, come back; and let me give my life for yours. On earth you will not be happy, dear—nay, never. But hereafter—What can I say to make you trust me and believe?”
The words poured from his lips swill, eager, breathless, unconsidered, in all their unreason, their unwisdom, their nobility, their ignorance, their folly, their sublimity. All the narrow sim‐ [Page 152] plicity of the peasant, and all the boundless vision of the poet, met in him as he spoke. He meant, to their very uttermost, every syllable he uttered.
She was gone from him; she was to him a thing terrible and almost loathsome. He burned with shame for her shame. Yet she was dear to him. He was ready to give his life to ransom hers. To him sin was real, and hell and heaven. What he dreamed of was impossible; but in his sight it was possible. It seemed to him that the faith to do it was so strong in him, that it could not fail to work its own fulfilment.
As far as she could be touched by anything, she was moved by his suffering. It was strange to her; it even amused her; but it touched her. Poor boy! He had always seen living things in lonely, wayside stones; and lamented for the birds and beasts, because the priests said there was no eternity for them; and heard so many voices, that none else could ever hear, in the silent marshalling of the clouds by night, and the low whimper of the autumn ruffled brooks. [Page 153] She remembered all those things. He had been always so foolish—always.
It amused her. Yet it hurt her a little—ever so little—very, very little—too.
“Who would have thought he would have taken it to heart—like that?” she thought. And she felt a sort of sullen jealousy in her. It was not for her that he suffered so much. Not for the real woman, as she knew herself. Not for the’ beautiful cold wanton whom Paris had called Innocence. It was for the playmate that had run with him that summer day over the plains to Prato: it was for the imaginary thing, which she had built up before him with her words, and dressed in her apparel of soft lies.
She was almost jealous: as astrologists were of shapes their magic conjured.
“Signa, do not be so full of pain,” she murmured. “It is no fault of yours.”
“Yes: it is mine. I let you go with me that day,” he muttered. “Oh, poor Palma!—thinking of you night and morning—thinking of you safe with Christ!”
His head was bent down upon her knees, [Page 154] otherwise he would have seen her petulant proud mouth curve in a little smile.
She stretched her hand out, and musingly touched the soft curls of his hair.
He shrank, as if the touch had burnt him. She saw the gesture of aversion. It set her heart harder on the thing she meant to do.
“You shudder from me,” she said, sadly. “Well, that is natural, no doubt. But it is better to lose you from the truth, than keep you by a lie. I tell a million lies. All women do. But there is something in your eyes that will not let one lie. What is it?”
Lying all the while, she kept her hand upon his curls, stroking them gently, till, magnetised by the contact, he no longer moved away or strove to resist that touch, but looked down with his cheeks on fire and his pulse beating.
“I do not understand,” he muttered. “I see two simple ways—one right, one wrong. I would save you with my life;—I say, with my soul;—only you laugh at that.”
“Nay, I do not laugh; for you—you are of the things God makes to live for ever—if he [Page 155] makes anything. I laugh when you talk of soul or mind in me. A woman has a body and a face; no. more. She has ten years’ grace with them and glory; then she is withered up and shoved aside, and there is an end of all. I would make the most of my ten years. What harm?”
He looked at her in a blank despair. How could he give sight to what was blind?—how make her shamed for what she did not see?
“Leave me alone,” she said. “What matter? It is but such a little while a woman lives. With the first wrinkle on her skin, she dies. As well fret for each rose that falls each time it rains, I tell you. Signa,—why stay to pain yourself and me? You cannot change me. Go back to your own hills, and dream your music there, and pray to all the saints with Palma—if it please you.”
“Palma! What is she to me!”
He rose and stood irresolute, impatient, bewildered. Go‐and leave her! He felt as he had felt in the garden of Giovoli, hearing her laughter on the other side of the wall as she was swung by other hands than his up in the golden [Page 156] fruit‐boughs. His face was burning; his heart was beating; his brain was giddy; he had spoken in all the earnestness of pain and truth. It seemed to him that she must loathe her life. It seemed to him that she must hate herself. He had spoken in full faith. He would have surrendered up his future years to hers, and served her faithfully for ever parted from her.
But then she did not seem to see—
The passion of his sorrow fell back from her as hot tears may fall back from the red smoothness of a rose‐leaf.
She leaned backwards on the cushions of her couch; her hands were tightly clasped behind her head; her wide sleeves fell back from her arms to the shoulder; her face was turned upward, with her blue eyes watching him through half‐closed lids; her small scarlet mouth was but half shut, her breath came through it evenly as a child’s; she smiled a little.
It maddened him to look on her.
He could not stir one pulse of shame in her.
He could only—leave her.
So she said.[Page 157]
Had he been older, harder, wiser, he would have left her then, without an effort to change the unchangeable, to pierce the impenetrable; or he would have tossed her away from him with such scorn, such force, such loathing, that, finding her master in him, the cowardice which sleeps in every woman would have awakened in her, and brought her trembling to his feet. But he was not old, nor hard, nor wise; his heart was weak with all the innocent affection of his childhood, and for the first time the loveliness of a woman made him blind and stupid. She was so much to him: she was Gemma, whom he had kissed a thousand times in babyhood, tumbling in the flower‐filled grasses of the green hillsides; and she was also the first woman whose look sent fire through his veins. She was near to him by a host of sinless memories; and she was sundered from him so utterly by sins so vile.
The world held nothing for him but herself.
To cleanse her from her golden corruption, to shake her conscience from its drugged apathy, to tear her away from the companions of her life,— [Page 158] to do all this and save her for the eternity that he believed in, the boy would have given up his own life and his own soul.
All in a moment his art perished.
When a human love wakes it crushes fame like a dead leaf, and all the spirits and ministers of the mind shrink away before it, and can no more allure, no more console, but, sighing, pass into silence and are dumb.
She, lying back with her golden head on her clasped hands, watched him.
She knew all he felt.
“Leave me,” she said, with a slow soft smile. “You have your music, and the saints that you believe in, and Palma, who will pray with you. Why do you stay here? Go.”
“I cannot go—not so.”
She stung him with Palma’s name; poor, stupid, unlearned, bare‐foot Palma, treading the earth as the ox did and the mule.
“Gemma! have you no conscience in you; no pain, no sorrow, no revolt against your fate?” he said, suddenly. “Oh, my dear! have I spoken to the winds? Is it because my words are weak [Page 159] that what I plead for seems so too? Gemma!—I cannot leave you to your fate. It is to leave you to drink poison as the very water of life, and to die a dog’s death at the end of all—a street dog’s, kicked and cursed. You speak of Palma. How can I look in Palma’s face, leaving her sister lost as you are lost? The very hills there would rebuke me. The very stones at home cry out. Oh, God! What shall I say? If He put no soul in you, how shall I?”
She listened to the generous, foolish, noble, senseless words. Some of them stung her like thorns; some of moved her with wonder. He seemed to her such a fool—ah, heaven! such a fool. He spoke as children dream. Yet, innocently, he lashed her with a scourge of nettles; for he rejected her with all his infinite tenderness; for he spoke of her as of a lost, degraded, alien thing; for he would not see his kiss upon her lips.
She rose on an impulse of rage to send him from her for ever;—he would not touch her! She, who saw princes sue and lords in feud for her, could have thrust her foot and [Page 160] spurned him from her presence in her fury at his innocently uttered scorn.
When 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.
Each added word of his hardened more and more her will upon the course that she had set herself; stung all her warmest pride, and made more sure his doom with her.
No angel from heaven, no miracle of light shining as in the steps of Paul, could ever have changed her much; but he, in all his innocence, struck the iron of her wilful vanity and beat it into sharpest steel.
She rose erect on to her feet and thrust back the white wooden shutters before the casement nearest her, and let the dazzling effulgence of the intense noonlight pour on her, and bathe her in it, and turn the fairness of her hair to molten gold, the whiteness of her flesh to ivory, the flush of her cheeks to opal fires; her beautiful limbs shone in it like marble, her hair streamed against it till it was like an aureola of heaven, the ruthless [Page 161] light glanced on her and searched her everywhere, and found no flaw. Flowers droop in it; children pale in it; birds flee from it; but she bore it in all its intensity, and was but the more glorious in it.
He gazed at her. She stood erect, golden and white against the burning sun.
“Look at me!” she cried to him. “Look!—the light that kills all other things and pales all other beauties, does but make mine the greater. Look at me! The sun may shine on me, search me, pierce me, it can find no fault anywhere. Look—look—look! There is no blemish anywhere, I say—no flaw the sun can find. And you talk to me of penitence and pain! You talk to me of poverty and shame! You talk to me of going back to penance in a peasant’s hut, and letting rains and winds and snows beat on my body! Look at me! While I am this, you think I care for heaven? You are mad! Unlovely, loveless women may cling to priestly tales of it, as hungry curs hope, shivering, for a bone. I give it with an hour of myself. Gods—if there be gods—can do no more than!”[Page 162]
The mighty blasphemy of her superb vanity seemed to him to burn through the golden light she stood in, as lightning through the sunbeams.
With her arms uplifted in the exultation of her measureless arrogance, and her eyes with contemptuous challenge glancing through their amorous drooped lids, a sudden memory struck him.
He cried aloud, as if some mortal hurt were done him in the flesh.
“You were the dancer of Istriel! You are the creature they call Innocence”
She looked him in the eyes straightly and serenely, her golden head erect under the nimbus of the noonday light.
“Yes. Well, then?—what of that?”
He gazed at her breathless; a great tearless sob choked him: then he fell down senseless at her feet.
When he came to himself he was alone upon a bed in a darkened chamber. The wind was blowing over him; he heard birds singing.
Long fasting, sleeplessness, and violent emotion—all had made him lose his consciousness for [Page 163] awhile; his brain was giddy still, the light swam before his eyes; he rose and staggered to the glass doors which stood open, and put the outer shutters aside and out into the air.
An old negress stopped him; was he not too ill? Would he not wait? Her mistress—At the last word he put her hurriedly aside and hastened farther out; it was the house of this woman whom her world called, as the emperor his desert beast—Innocence. He could not stay in it; the air of it seemed to stifle him.
Without well knowing what he did, he traversed the gardens with unsteady steps, the sunshine reeling and dancing before his half‐blind eyes; then, his limbs growing stronger and his sight clearer as the wind blew on him from the water, he pushed his way through the maze of flowering shrubs and thick‐set orange‐trees out of the gardens down on to the shore. He sat down stupidly in the shadow of a boat and leaned his forehead on his hands, and, do what he would, saw only her—standing against the light.
She was the dancer of Istriel.
“Well, what of that?” she had asked him.[Page 164]
What of it, indeed. It made her neither better and no worse. It changed nothing. To have been the nude model of a painter was not more than to have been the willing wanton of the world.
Yet it seemed more hideous to him.
It brought her vileness home to him.
It seemed to write her shame on earth and sky as on a scroll for every eye to read.
This was a fancy; but the fancies of poets are their hell, when they cease to be their heaven. And they cease so soon.
The dancer of Istriel had been seen by all the nations of the globe; that lovely, voluptuous, smiling thing, with her red blossom and her floating feet, had looked all mankind in the face and made them wish for her; to the boy she seemed sold to the whole earth—made harlot for all the peoples of the world.
Istriel’s gold had bought his Rusignuolo. Istriel’s gold had purchased Gemma.
He owed his fame—she, her ruin—to the same hand. So he thought. He exaggerated his own debt, and he shut his eyes against her lie, [Page 165] as such natures as his will ever do, to hurt themselves and keep their faith in their false gods.
Where was Istriel?
In an aimless, hopeless passion, he longed to find this man—this man who had taken her in her youngest youth and drawn every curve and coloured every hue of her fair frame so cruelly, and sent it out to let the eyes of all men gloat on it in public as they would. The crime of the painter against her seemed to him viler than all seduction. It seemed to him the very brutality of license; the very crown of outrage. The seducer fed but his own eyes with the beauty he unveiled; this man had fed ten million ravishers’ eyes with hers.
It was the first passionate agony of his life. He had suffered before; but then with hope underneath him, bearing him up like the wings of some strong bird. He suffered now as those do who suffer without hope.
All these years gone and Palma praying there in an undoubting faith, and all the while nothing on earth or heaven heeding; but all this vileness done beyond recall—beyond repair.[Page 166]
Do what he would he could not change this thing the years had made her.
Cry as he would to fate, no means could undo what had been done.
Nothing could give him back Gemma—little fair Gemma, with unstained soul, sleeping as the lambs sleep in the bed of hay. And yet the loveliness of her burned him like so much flame.
He hid his face in his hands and saw her always as he had seen her come cut from the waters in the dark night amongst the red roses.
“Go, write a romance on me,” she had said to him. But he could no more have done it than he could have flown to the sun with the eagles.
His brain seemed dead in him.
He heard no longer sweet concord in the waters, and lisped numbers in the murmurs of the winds; he looked back at his self of yesterday and wondered where the power in him had gone; all in a moment his art and his fame and all his high desires seemed to grow as nothing to him.
He shut his eyes and saw the fair limbs of a [Page 167] woman slowly moving through the shadows; a mouth that smiled a little, a bough of dark leaves and ruby buds, against a snow, white breast:—that was all he saw.
His art:—where was it?
It seemed to him like a dead thing. A sudden sense of vast immeasurable loss fell on him.
He was terrified; he did not know what ailed him.
In most men and women Love waking wakes, with itself, the soul.
In poets Love waking kills it.
Nature had been always to the boy so full of sympathy and solace. Beaten and hungry and overtasked in his childhood, he had been happy the moment that he had escaped alone into the open air on the breeze‐blown hillpaths, with the sighing of the pines above his head; nay, happy even if he could but be by any little narrow casement and see the line of the old town wall with the lichens and vetches clear against the sky and in their crevices the shining lizards sitting. But now mountain and lake and the autumnal glories of the woods could bring no consolation; they [Page 168] only seemed to him cruel; they had no heart in them, they did not care.
The hideous universal sentence of corruption for the first time seemed to him written over all the things of earth and air.
For she was vile.
How the day passed he never knew.
It rolled away somehow; the sky seemed like a sheet of fire; the sun for the first time burned him and hurt him; he saw nothing but the form of a woman.
The man who had his opera at the town sought him and said:
“Only think!—they will play your Lamia at the Apollo in Rome in Carnival. Only think!—and at San Carlo too. Here are your letters.”
He stared at the speaker and thrust the papers away, and did not answer.
He hardly understood.
It had been his religion. He was dead to it now. All in a day his innocent spiritual joys were withered up in him. What use was it? It could not alter her.[Page 169]
In proportion to the absorption of any life in any art, so is the violence of its dethronement and oblivion of art when love has entered.
It seemed to him that every note in all the world might be for ever mute, and he not care.
It seemed to him that if they said he was a fool and let him die nameless and despised, it would be no matter to him.
For he loved this fair foul thing; only he did not know it.
After awhile mechanically he found his way into his own chamber.
It was late in the day. The little room was filled with flowers that the village women, proud of having the young genius in their midst, had placed everywhere about. He did not notice them. But at the intense odour he shuddered a little; they made him think of the garden ways of Giovoli.
Without knowing what he did he sat down to the piano which stood there.
He began to play.
A torrent of passion, a passion of tears, were in the music that he made with no sense of what he did; the abruptest changes from pain to rap‐ [Page 170] ture; the strongest and greatest harmonies; the most capricious transitions, the most bitter woe were in the sounds he drew; never in all his creations had he reached so great a height as now, when he created what he did not care to preserve, what he had no brain left to measure.
By sheer instinct his nature cried aloud against its pain in the art that was inborn in him as its song in a bird.
Then all at once he ceased and loathed it: what use was it? it was only a mockery; it could not alter her.
Some of those who followed him and worshipped him—for he was never now without some of these parasites of success—standing outside his door, listened breathless in ecstasy; one or two, when the melody ceased, ventured in and kissed his hands, and cried to him:
“You never were so great!”
He looked at them dully.
“What good is it?” he said to them; and he went into his inner room and barred the door against them.
What good was it?[Page 171]
He was scarcely more than twenty years old; he had a great future; he had put his name in all the mouths of men; he had all that, dreaming under the pines above Bruno’s house the night when the violin was broken, he had thought would be worth purchase by a whole long life of toil and poverty and renunciation and neglect.
And all was unreal and useless to him now. It seemed as if his hands grasped ashes and his ears were full of the sound of empty winds mourning through desolate places.
He went out in the air again.
He could not rest indoors.
He shook himself free, with impatience, of his disciples who would fain have accompanied him, and spoken to him of the coming reception of his operas down in Rome. He got away by himself to the shore of the lake; to the still and sombre shadows of a long‐deserted garden that had been his haunt in happier hours.
There are times when the weakness of humanity falls back broken and heartsick before the iron wall of unchangeable circumstance, as a beaten [Page 172] seabird falls back from the stone face of the cliffs.
It was so with him now.
“If only I could save her!” he cried in his heart: and in his heart knew that he could not; not though he were to give his soul up for her own. Legends tell of such barters. Life does not know them.
Gemma had been her own destiny. But such destiny was as immutable as though the gods of old had shaped it.
She had stained her white marble red. Signa knew that though the stone should be washed seventy times seven and bruised into a million fragments, the dust would be never white again, but blood red always,—always.
He had uttered his real thoughts to Gemma: to him she was like one leprous‐stricken. Her story had filled him with pity, but with horror.
Bruno had taught him to hold wanton women accursed. Bruno, who again and again had fallen in their snares, had always bade him hold them like the deadly mushrooms that men gather for bread and find are death. Bruno, fearing the [Page 173] softness of the boy’s nature, had said always to him, “Poverty is bad, and hunger and sickness and sorrow and labour that has no end—these are all bad—but worse than any of these is it to be the slave of a woman who is unchaste.”
He wandered all the day. It seemed to him as if it would never end. He saw nothing but the face of Gemma. The world which had seemed to him so beautiful was changed; heaven was cruel. It created loveliness only to pollute it and deform it afterwards.
Out of his dreams he was brought face to face with facts that sickened him. All the old landmarks of his faith were gone. All the happy hopefulness of his nature was crushed. He was bewildered and sick at heart. And through it all he could not thrust away the personal beauty of the woman. Her gaze, her form, her breath, her smile, her sigh:—he could think of no other thing. It seemed to him as if she were in the air, in the clouds, in the water; her voice rang in his ears; she was so lovely—and yet she was so vile;—she was so much more than a woman and so much less.—“If only I could save her!” [Page 174] he said to himself, and then could have flung his forehead on the rock remembering that there was no way to make her other than she was; remembering that to be torn from shame is not to become innocent.
“Oh, dear God,—all Palma’s prayers!” he thought. They had been all in vain, like so much futile breath spent on the empty air to unresponding space.
The mockery of it stung him, as if God himself were jeering as a man might do.
He looked up stupidly at the broad noonday skies. There was the same sun, the same earth, the same water; beyond the plains, on the hills that he knew best, men and women were leading the same life, drawing the wine from the presses, driving the oxen over the green sods, gathering up the ripe olives, with the bells ringing over their quiet world. It seemed to him so strange. Everything was unchanged except himself, and he seemed to have become old and tired, and full of pain.
Only one night before, there had been no happier living thing in all the human world than [Page 175] he; and now—he wondered that the sun did not stay in its course, that the waters did not rise and cover the land, that all the flowers were not withered off the ground—since sin so cursed the earth.
The hours rolled by; he did not count them. The long hot day burnt itself out as passing passions do. The boats came and went; the sun sank and the moon rose. His own stars—the stars of the Winged Horse—shone down in the first faint darkness of the early night.
He sat lonely on the solitary shore, watching the breeze‐blown water without sense of what he saw.
He could not understand the anguish that blotted out for him all colours of earth and heaven.
All life had been to him as the divining rod of Aaron, blooming ever afresh with magic flowers. Now that the flame of pain and passion burned it up, and left a bare sear brittle bough, he could not understand.
Love is cruel as the grave.
The poet has embraced the universe in his [Page 176] visions; and heard harmony in every sound, from deep calling 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 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.
Signa sat by the wind‐tossed lake waters.
He did not know what had killed his soul in him. He only knew that his music was no more to him than the sound of stones shaken in a shrivelled bladder by an idiot’s hand.[Page 177]
Bruno was avenged.
“Give me to the worms; let only my music live!” he had said again and again in his one prayer to Fate. Now—what use were his fame or his art to him? They could not undo what was done.
Achievement holds its mockery, no less than failure.
The evening deepened; the stars of Pegasus grew clearer; a lovely silvered radiance spread over the face of the waters and the sides of the mountains. He had no sight for it and no care. He sat where he had wandered; the hill thyme under his feet; gold‐fruited boughs above his head; the lake before him.
Through the soft gloom a white form stole towards him, a rose against her lips, as silence has, to hide her smiles.
She came and watched him a moment, and then laid her hands on his bent head.
“You went away without a word to me,” she said. “I have looked for you since sunset, Signa.”
He trembled from head to foot and sprang erect, and stood and gazed at her.[Page 178]
She waited a little while, then sank on the rough stone seat hewn out of a fallen rock where he had sat.
“Well?” she said, softly. “Have you nothing to say to me?—nothing?”
“What can I say?” he muttered. “I wound you, I hurt you—or I seem a fool.”
“A noble fool,” she said. “Such fools as heaven is peopled with, if the saints’ tales be true.”
His face flushed with the joy of her praise,
Yet what was any praise of hers worth?—what value any word?
Her words were as the tinkling cymbals of brass which lead men to destruction. Her beauty was bare to all the world as Phryne’s on the canvas of Gerome.
He had been reared in the stern judgments of the old Dante temper which still lived in the recesses of the hills; the temper which flung the nude marble and the voluptuous image in the flames at Savonarola’s bidding.
“Why did you go away—so?” she said to him. “I left you for a moment with my women, [Page 179] and when I went back you had fled, no one knew where.”
“Knowing what I know, your house stifles me.”
“That is how you repay me for the truth. I should have lied to you.”
“You have let him paint the truth in scarlet letters for all the world to read.”
“Istriel? Oh, that is so long ago!”
“He was your betrayer?”
“What does it matter?”
“What does it matter, I tell you; I have forgotten him. He is far away painting in the Ukraine, waiting for the great snows, they say, to draw the forests and the wolves. Perhaps the wolves will eat him. Let him be. He painted me in a hundred ways. The first thing he did was of me standing like a little saint holding a dove and with those white roses that we call of the Madonna; he named the picture Innocence; that is how I had the name.”
“He is in the snow‐fields you say—now?”
“I heard so—yes. What does it matter? What would you do if he were here?”[Page 180]
He only looked at her. His face was very pale; his great eyes had an answer in them that she understood.
She laughed a little to herself.
“You would kill him? Poor Istriel! Why? Since did not?”
“You would have done if—”
“If I had been Palma?”
She laughed again; aloud this time.
“If you had been—a woman—as God made them.”
“How is that? God made Eve—if He made anything, Do not use phrases, Signa. You learned that of your priests. You will die in a monk’s robes, after all?”
He turned from her with an inexpressible pain.
“Oh, my God! You can jest!”
“Why not, dear? All my life is a jest. It goes merrily like bells. You will not understand.”
“I will not believe! You cannot be so base.”
“In a man it were philosophy! why in a woman is baseness?”[Page 181]
“You play with words! if you be happy why say a few hours since you were in hell?”
A faint smile broke across her face. She banished it before he saw it there.
“You know women so little if you ask that. We are in hell one hour and in heaven the next. ‘Flower of an Hour.’ That is a woman. I am happy—very happy—when you will not make me think.”
He looked up at her again.
“Ah I if you would but think;—but let your conscience wake.”
“We said enough of that,” she interrupted him, with coldness. “To‐day I answered you, once and for all. If you want conscience, and terror of the saints, and all you call true womanhood, you have it all in Palma—whom you leave! As for me—I told the truth to you, judging you other than you are. I thought that you were fair enough, tender enough, sinless enough yourself to stay with me a little for our childhood’s sake, without reproach. I have lovers where I will. I have no friend. Because I am no hypocrite, and will not take up at a moment’s bidding sackcloth and [Page 182] ashes, and say the seven psalms of penitence, you shudder and leave me to my fate. You have no patience, no reason, no compassion. You cast me off because I am not ready to go back to the old, hateful, bitter, famished life, and say my mea culpa at the feet of Palma. You are mad. And do not speak to me of sorrow. If you had sorrow for me you would say ‘this woman is alone in all her wealth, desolate in all her power, without a heart to trust amidst a troop of lovers.’ You would say:—‘there is a gulf between us, yes, and any word of love from her to me, or me to her, is now impossible; but I will serve her still. I will not forsake her because she does not pile the cinders of a false repentance on her head; I will have more faith in the latent strength of patient purpose to win her back from error.’ That is what you would say—were you, indeed, the gentle boy I thought you. But you are like all the rest who imitate the saints. Tenderness with you means flattered vanity; you speak of your gods and act but for yourselves; you think you arm yourself with virtue, but your strength is only your own self‐love sharp‐wounded and [Page 183] irate. You preach to me; you bid me leave my world: you say you best had never see my face again—and why! Because you hate my sins? Ah, no! Because you hate my lovers!”
His face flushed scarlet; he sprang to his feet.
The brutal truth, which yet was only half a truth, and bore rankest injustice with it, pierced him to the quick.
There were honour, fair faith, and purity of intent in him, which flung off the words, in honest rage, as calumny. Yet, like all words that lay bare any truth, they had the electric shock of lightning in them. Passionate repudiation sprang to his lips; then paused there; he was silent.
Was it less her sins he loathed than those who shared them?
He searched his heart in vain; all seemed dark there. He stood indignant, yet abased. He knew her words a lie, yet were his own all truth? He did not know. He was a mystery to himself.
To himself; but not to her. She watched him, knowing each pang that moved him, knowing each doubt that stunned him and confused [Page 184] him. The lovers of her world, though often their passion was high and their emotions violent, could give her no such sport as this young soul which had dwelt in solitude with art and God, and was bewildered in the maze of passions that she dragged it to, as any antelope caught in the hunter’s toils, when the forest is ablaze with torches and alive with steel.
“You do me cruel wrong—God knows,” he said, simply; and so turned and would have left her then for ever.
He knew she wronged him; but how much—how little,—that he could not tell; he was sure no longer of himself; nor of anything human or divine.
“What!” she said slowly. “You cannot even forgive me, then?”
He sighed from the depths of his heart
“I do forgive you—everything. But who is to know the thing you really are? You seem so vile and soulless, all one moment, and the next—Ah, let me go! It kills me to be here. Perhaps I hate your lovers, as you say. Perhaps. Your brothers would.”[Page 185]
A dark scorn gathered in her eyes. He—who had felt her hand amongst his hair, and on his drooping brow—could speak so!
“My brothers! they would be glad enough if I gave them gold to spend at loto, and new wine to drink, as far as I remember them, which is but little. They bit and pinched me; and I stole figs and nuts to bribe them with, if ever I wanted them. If you have no better thing to say, than quote my brothers!—”
“Say what I will you quarrel with it. Gemma—if you be Gemma; sometimes still I think you cannot be—let me go.”
“I am not Gemma. Gemma was a little stupid child, fed on black bread and tumbling with the pig. I am Innocence. The Innocence of Paris.”
And she laughed.
The laughter was like ice; and made him shiver, flesh and bone.
What had she not known, what had she not done, what brutalities of license had not she bent to in willing bondage, what cruelties and luxuries of vice had she not tasted, invented, been prodigal [Page 186] of—what memories had she not, what horrors must she not have steeped her fair white beauty in—he thought of all that, hotly, dully, as a drunken man will think of things that for ever pursue him, and yet are always vague to him.
The moonlight was about her; the crimson amaranthus flung its tall feathers around her: some marble sculptures shone behind her in the dark leaves of olive and of orange. She was so perfect to look upon; no sculptor ever made a fairer Clytie for the God of Song; and what had her life been; what were her memories; what was her foul knowledge? She was like the casket of silver that held the ashes of death.
It broke his heart to look on her.
To others she might be only one fair false woman the more, gone the way that all loose women take. But to him she was the very ruin of earth, the very mockery of heaven.
He clasped her hands with a great cry: “Oh, Gemma!—have you no pity!”
Had she any?[Page 187]
She looked at him, thinking for the moment that she would be pitiful, and let him go—go, whilst there was yet time; while she could still become to him a thing seen in a trance, a phantom soon forgotten, a mere name; go, whilst the horror in him was stronger than the love.
He was only a score of years old; he heard beautiful things in his dreams; he was loved by the people and cherished; his future would be greater than his present; he had the semi‐divinity of genius; he had the virgin gold of an unworn heart; he had the fond mad faiths of a poet: if she let him go there was still time:—time for him to leave in peace, forgetting her, in his art, as a feverish dream of the night is forgotten in the breaking of morning.
Would she have pity? it was but one plaything forborne; one leaf of the laurel ungathered. But she had said to herself, “Palma shall die of want of him, and I will be his god.”
She said it again in her heart.
As much of warmth as she could know, stirred in her towards him.[Page 188]
His beauty, his youth, his very innocence, had a charm for her, such as sated Faustina or wearied Messalina might have found in some fair boy captive from Judea, with the simple asceticism of the Galilean fishers in his soul. And then he rebuked her, shrank from her, condemned her: it was enough.
In the day of their infancy she had done with him as she chose; should he be stronger than she was now?
He cleaved to his art and his faith; well, he should forswear both.
He was a little shell off the seashore that Hermes had taken out of millions like it that the waves washed up, and had breathed into, and had strung with fine chords, and had made into a syrinx sweet for every human ear.
Why not break the simple shell for sport? She did not care for music. Did the gods care—they could make another.
“Have I no pity?” she murmured. “Nay, you only dream—dreams are pale, cold things at best—learn with me to live!”—and she drew her hands from him and passed them round his throat [Page 189] and inclined his head towards her breast, and brought his lips to hers.
“Have I no pity?” she said.
His life passed into her life. His soul went from him and became her own.
9. CHAPTER IX.
It was a soft, clear winter in the country round the Lastra.
On Christmas‐day the wind‐flowers were still rosy and purple and snow‐white in the grass of the fields; and, with the new year, the red roses blossomed behind the iron bars of the casements, and in the corn‐fields the crocuses were thinking that it was already time to come through the earth. Girls plaited at the doors on the mild mornings, as if it were summer; and there was seldom a curl of wood‐smoke on the air, except when the soup‐pots were simmering.
Men coming and going from the city, and post‐bags dropped as the letter‐cart ran down over the bridge from the Upper town; brought tidings, [Page 191] in the soft, silvery weather, of the Actea and the Lamia.
In all the cities one or the other was being given; north and south, under the Alps, and by the seashore of Vesuvius, they were playing and singing the music of the young master, who called himself by the old, historic word of “Signa.”
“What name will you take for the great world?” they had said to him, when he was still but a little scholar.
“Only Signa,” he had said; and he signed all that he wrote so.
“My mother was the flood, and my father the owls,” he said to himself; he liked best to have it so; dead Pippa was a pain to him; and her lover, whoever he had been, whether prince or peasant, had no hold on his thoughts. “I am Signa,” he said, that was all his own; owing no man anything for it, nor the Church either. Signa, just as the walls were, and the gates and the bells and the woods and the old painted frescoes.
Everywhere they were playing and singing his [Page 192] music, and it had even echoed over the Alps, and spread itself northward and southward, in that victory of the lyre with which his country has so often avenged herself for the invasions of the sword.
His music was in the throats of the people.
In grim Perugia Augusta, in dark Bologna, in smiling Como, in grand Ravenna, in the City of the syrens, in the busy marts of Milan, in sombre obscure Etruscan towns, in mighty opera houses, in little solitary theatres, anywhere, and everywhere, the melodies of the Actea and the Lamia were ringing; they had the pure science which allures the cultured ear, and the potent sympathies which sway the multitudes; learned doctors followed their accurate combinations with delight in the solitude of the study, and boys and girls caught their sweet simplicity with rapture, and sang them to the woods and fields, as birds their love calls.
The Actea and the Lamia were sisters and rivals both at once; the Asiatic slave, with her crucified god and her murdered master, and the Venus of the flute, with her crowned passion [Page 193] and her divine honours, divided between them the adulation of the people.
Some found noblest the sacrificed love, some the victorious; some the dishonoured grave that held the world for Actea, some the imperial art that rendered Lamia stronger than her tyrant; but whether one or the other, or whether both together, the two stories, old as the cities of the world are old, fresh as love is fresh, took hold upon the souls of the people, and by the interpretation of his harmonies thrilled the world anew, as Rome had trembled when Actea had wept, and Athens when Lamia had stayed the lifted sword.
There is a chord in every human heart that has a sigh in it if touched aright.
When the artist finds the keynote, which that chord will answer to, in the dullest as in the highest—then he is great.
Signa had found it.
Found it by the instinct which men call genius, not knowing what else to say.
To the quiet Lastra, with the corn springing about it, and the smell of the pines coming down [Page 194] on the wind, and the fishermen throwing their nets in the full waters, tidings of these great triumphs of the little fellow who had run barefoot amongst them, came every now and then; written in letters, spelled out of news sheets, and oftener still brought by the mouths of men coming from the little fairs of the towns, or the grain markets of the city.
They played the Actea in the city itself before Christmas,
The men and women of the Lastra went many of them down into the city to hear this wonderful music which Pippa’s son had made: poor Pippa, who had always plaited ill. And many more, who could not go, heard of it on the market‐days and brought back all the strange marvels of it that were told, and said how, at midnight on Christmas Eve, when the people sang all together in the cathedral, praising God for the past year, for the good and ill together, some solitary voice had lifted itself and sung the death song of the Christians, insomuch that the whole multitude was carried away as with one impulse, and chanted it together as by one [Page 195] voice, standing and beating their breasts with streaming eyes under the great dome, when the music had got upon them, so that no force could restrain them, but they had poured out under the midnight stars into the fresh air, and gone their various ways in various streams in the teeth of the northern wind, singing the hymn still in all the streets, and filling Florence with it, as it had been filled in the olden time with the litanies of Savonarola.
All that Bruno heard when he drove his mule through the little towns, or went down into the city to buy or sell; all that and much more of the same spirit in the winter‐time, when he worked by lanthorn‐light early and late, and the snow lay on the mountains between him and the sea.
Luigi Dini went and heard, and said his Nunc Dimittis in the great peace of his heart. He had loved Music, and had served her as the very humblest and lowest of her drudges; and it had been given to him to feed on his crumbs of knowledge, and refresh with his cup of the water of faith, this young High Priest had hers, this heaven‐born Apollino.[Page 196]
Sitting in an obscure corner of the vast area of the Pagliano, the old man heard the thunders of applause, and saw the house filled from floor to roof, and listened to the grave song of Actea, and thanked fate which had let him live so long: few men can do as much.
“Will you not go and hear it?” he said to Bruno.
“No! Not when the city rings with it?”
“Why should I? I have heard it—long ago—when he was a little child, sitting in the thrashed straw, plating on the old cracked lute I gave him. I had it all—so long ago.”
“A child’s twitterings on a lute! You talk idly—you know nothing of this.”
“I know enough,” said Bruno. For in his heart he still hated it, the art which had taken away Pippa’s son. It was always his antagonist; always his conqueror.
But for that, Signa would have been so happy in the little house that would have been built by [Page 197] the brook where the rushes blew. So happy—and safe always.
He and Palma worked in the short winter days, and got up in the dark and beat the black earth for their daily bread; and neither of them ever forgave this mystical passion which had usurped the life of Signa, and taken him from them to give him to the world.
Bruno worked early and late, because it had been his habit from his birth upward, and had so grown into him as to be a very part of himself. But he had lost zest in it. He had no longer any aim. The man, by temper open‐handed, did not care to save for saving’s sake, and the mere pleasure of seeing the money accumulate, as most men did; and Signa did not want his help. Signa earned his own money.
Life, 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, mechanically, but it takes no grip on outer things, it has no vital interest, it gravitates to nothing.[Page 198]
Bruno was too hardy and too used to the ways of labour to leave any labour undone or ill done; but the days were all stupid alike to him; he would have been content to have had no more of them. His crops, his cattle, his fruits, his oil ceased to fill him with pride, or to rack him with anxiety; a bad year or a good year was the same to him; he had no end to save for; there was Lippo in the three fields by the brook: and Signa wanted no help. The old gloom fell upon him; the old dark thoughts took possession of him.
The people on the hill saw that he worked harder than ever he had done before, now that he was once more alone. But they did not know that the joy had gone out of the work for him.
Before, Bruno had had that pride and pleasure in his daily labours without which labour is but as the task of the treadmill. In his comely stacks, in his even furrows, in his plenteous crops, in his cleanly vines, in his well‐nourished beasts he had taken delight. His fields had been to him as a fair picture; his harvests as a [Page 199] stout victory; he would have ploughed against any man to and fro the steepest slope with the same triumph in his skill as a Napoleon in his battles.
But now all that was changed with him. His work had lost that gladness in it which alone sweetens life’s perpetual struggle. A sense of captivity had come over him. That large liberty which the breath of the mountains gives had gone away from him.
One market‐day he had to stay later in the city over a bargain, which Savio had bidden him miss on no account; it was night before he could harness his little beast and think of moving homeward. It was Twelfth‐night, and all the place was in a pleasant tumult. Carnival had come in that day, and everywhere there were laughter and lights and sport and jest, and at the corners of the streets masks were dancing.
Time had been when he had had full zest in that merry fooling; when he had come down in the dark evenings from his homestead, walking all the way, and spent the midnight in the [Page 200] masked riot, leaping round the bonfires and flying in the circles of the mad dancers, and then had gone up again, before dawn broke, to his oxen and his wheat‐fields and his olive‐pressing.
But those days were done for him; he passed through the mummers dark and silent, with never a look at them, with his cloak wrapped across his mouth. His errand took him past the great theatre; the lighted lamps gleamed on the printed word of Actea; a multitude was thronging in while the city clocks chimed eight.
Bruno halted a moment. He had said he would never hear it. A sort of hatred thrilled in him at sight of the gathering people: it was to fill their ears and to have his name in their mouths that Signa had foresworn the old safe ways of his mother’s people.
So Bruno thought, at least, who did not know that genius is, at its best, but a slave, driven on by the whip of an imperious and incomprehensible obligation.
He had said he never would hear it, But at sight of that dense crowd pressing inwards, a curious impulse to go with them seized on him.[Page 201]
Without thinking much what he did, he entered too; drew from his pouch the price they asked him; and found himself carried onwards by the pressure into the body of the house.
He had been there once or twice in his life—no more. It is the theatre of the people indeed, but peasants go to humbler ones, and Bruno, except on carnival nights, had never, even in his maddest years of youth, spent much time in the city. The Lastra had been his world.
He stood and leaned against a pillar as he might have done in a church, and the sweet, solemn harmonies of the overture thrilled through the immense space round him.
Look where he would there was a sea of human faces; the theatre was crowded, and there was not empty room left for a little child. A curious emotion filled him with pain and pride together. All this throng of living people was summoned by the magic of the boy whom he had lifted from the breast of his dead mother like a lamb from a drowned ewe. He had never realised before what thing it was; this power of the artist on the multitude; this power which [Page 202] is most the result of genius in proportion as it is least its object. As he watched the silent, breathless multitude such a power seemed to him like a sorcery.
He recognised the beauty of the music, but it was not that which moved him. It was to see all that wrapt intent throng of men and women ruled by the spell cast on them by the boy who, to him, was still only as a child: the boy who only a day before, as it seemed to him, had been a little thing carrying a lead of vine‐leaves for the cattle, and happy if a crust of bread were given him to eat on the hill‐side at noonday.
He stood and watched and listened; the rapturous applause, the tearful silence, the ecstasies of admiration, made his brain dizzy, and his heart throbbed. This was fame,—to hold a mass of idle, curious, indifferent people in these trances of delight, in these rhapsodies of emotion;—he understood it at last. Each wave of these great sounds seemed to lift the boy he loved farther and farther from him. The shouts of the multitude were like the noise of a sea tempest in his ears, bearing away from him and drowning [Page 203] the one innocent affection of his life. He realised his own impotence to follow or reach or do anything more to aid the life which had been swept out of his orbit. All in a moment Signa grew an inaccessible, unfamiliar, far‐distant thing to him—like any one of those stars which he looked up to at night, and which the priests said were worlds lying in the hollow of the hand of Deity.
“It is to be like a god,” he said to himself, as the music pealed through the space around him, and held the people quiet in the breathlessness of their delight. He did not wonder any more that Signa had refused to be content with beating the earth for his daily bread.
He heard two men close by him say:—
“It is strange the boy himself should be away—the first time any of his music is given here—his own city, too, as one may call it.”
“Aye: he is in Rome. They play the Lamia there in carnival.”
“And there is a woman, so they say.”
“There always is a woman.”
The two men passed onward, laughing.[Page 204]
Bruno touched them.
“Sirs—forgive me—is that true?”
“Is what true?”
They looked at him in surprise; a contadino with his dark cloak about bird, and his careless defiance of attitude, and his look of the mountain and the weather.
“That which you said—that ‘there is a woman; that this is why he does not come?”
“All we know nothing,” they answered him lightly. “So they say. So young as he is, and a lion everywhere, it is quite natural. But what can it be to you?”
“I am from his country,” said Bruno, simply; he thought, perhaps, it would not do the lad good to say much more. “I come from the Lastra, if you could tell me anything of him?”
“Indeed we know nothing,” said the men. “We never saw the youth; but everyone is talking of him; so they will gossip—it may not be true. That is all; somebody said a woman kept him down in Rome—some light woman out of France. But they would be sure to say so, true or untrue. Fame is a sugared paper; but it [Page 205] brings all wasps down on it. Nay, indeed, we know no more.”
And with many asseverations and many excuses, as though he were a prince and not a peasant, courtesy being the common way of the country, the men went out through the crowd into the night air, and Bruno followed with the pressing throng.
“Some light woman out of France.”
The words sung in his ear like a hornet’s booming.
He went and harnessed his mule, and went back through the gay merry glittering streets, and over the river across dark Oltrarno, and so out into the solitary country.
He met scarcely anyone upon the way.
The high road was quiet as a bridle‐path across the fields, and the Lastra was hushed, with fastened casements, and asleep.
The mule flew speedily over the level ground, and strained slowly up the steep hill road; the river shone—the leafless plain was dark—the night was very cold—the skies were clouded—a dark winter storm hung over where the sea [Page 206] lay, and hid the Lyre and the Cross of Cignus and the five stars, dedicated to the plumed steed which bears poets to their dreams, and lifts them to the highest height—to let them fall.
“A light woman out of France.”
The words went with him as a curse rings on the ear long after it is spoken.
What would she do with him? with that tender reed of his soul, which the gods had singled out from all its fellows, and taken away from the mountain brook of its birth to make into a flute for their pleasure?
Bruno drove on through the gloom up into the loneliness of his own hills.
He felt like one chained.
The life which had seemed to him the best of all lives grew into a prison cell. He was wedded to the soil; fastened down to one daily track; held fast as by a cord about his feet.
It had always seemed to him so well that a man should never stir from one nook—should get his bread where his fathers got theirs—should find his joys and his pains in one spot— [Page 207] should live and die on the soil that saw his birth. Men who sought fortune far afield had seemed to him no better than the gypsies. Men who bore their reckless discontent for ever to fresh pastures had seemed to him base sons of a fair country. A narrow field was a world too wide for a man to do the duties of it, so his people had always said; dwelling here, and letting the centuries go by without bringing to them any change. Generation after generation, they had filled the graves that the sheep cropped around the old brown church. He had always said, “mine will be there too,” and been content.
Now—all in a moment—the hill‐side that he loved narrowed to a prison‐house. Other men were free to come and go, to follow the evil that they dreaded, and seek it out and combat it; but the peasant cannot stir.
The earth has fed him; the earth claims him. He is her son, but he is her bondsman too; as Ishmael was Abraham’s.
All peril and all shame might encompass the young wandering life of Signa: and the man who had set himself to give his own life for it [Page 208] could no move to see the truth or wrestle against fate.
“A light woman out of France.”
The words ran with him through the dark like furies chasing him.
It might not be true: it might be true.
It might be true: what likelier?
Signa, inspired of heaven, and amongst sharp human eyes a fool—as genius always is;—a giant in his art, an infant in his ignorance;—what plaything costlier or more alluring to a woman?
He had the power of the Apollo Cytharaedus indeed over men; but in all other things, save his music, he was but a child; a child still half asleep, who looked at life with smiling eyes, and stretched his hands to it as to a sunbeam. What likelier than that a woman held him? and a woman worthless it was sure to be.
The heart of silver falls ever into the hands of brass.
The sensitive herb is eaten as grass by the swine.
Fate will have it so. Fate is so old, and weary [Page 209] of her task; she must have some diversion. It is Fate who blinded Love—for sport—and on the shoulders of possession hung the wallet full of stones and sand—Satiety.
Bruno reasoned nothing so.
Only he knew the boy; and he knew Love; and he said to himself:
“Fate will come that way.”
He had no hope; he felt that what the men had said was true. There was a woman yonder there in Rome.
Of course it might be so, and no harm come. Hurricanes pass; some trees stand and are the stronger for the storm; some break and fall for ever.
Or there might be no hurricane; only a sweet, mild, south wind that blew a little hotly for a space, and whirled him on it like a straw;—no more.
But not to be there!—not to know! Going through the winter night to his lonely house, Bruno felt as though the soil that he had loved as loyal sons their mothers, was a gaol.
His feet were lettered to it.
An alien force held the life that he had sworn [Page 210] to save, and might destroy it and he never nearer, but working like his beasts amongst the sprouting corn, from dawn to night, no freer than the beasts were.
Reaching the summit of the hill he looked back southward to the low mountains that lie between the plain and Rome.
The black clouds that folded the Winged Horse in their mists had now stretched thither; over those mountains there was darkness, but the stars were seen. Far away, above where they told him was the place of Rome the star Argol was shining clearer than all the rest.
Astrology and astronomy alike were nought to him; he could find his way by Polaris if wandering at night—that was all: for the rest they were to him only veiled, nameless wonders that he never thought of: only this star he knew. Argol dreaded of Arab and Chaldean.
For on the night when Dina had died above there where the pines were, that star had shone alone, as it did now, when all the sky was dark.
And an old man, now dead, a shepherd, [Page 211] who had been a soldier of Napoleon in his youth, and had brought strange perilous faiths and fancies with him from the land of Egypt, had said to him that night when Dina had died:
“That is the Demon Star. We knew it in the desert. It means death—or worse.”
Bruno had known it always ever after; he knew it now. Argol was shining above Rome.
Men who dwell in solitude are superstitious. There is no “chance” for them.
The common things of earth and air to them grow portents; and it is easier for them to believe that the universe revolves to serve the earth, than to believe that men are to the universe as the gnats in the sunbeam to the sun; they can sooner credit that the constellations are charged with their destiny, than that they can suffer and die without arousing a sigh for them anywhere in all creation. It is not vanity, as the mocker too hastily thinks. It is the helpless, pathetic cry of the mortal to the immortal nature from which he springs:
“Leave me not alone: confound me not with [Page 212] the matter that perishes: I am full of pain—have pity!”
To be the mere sport of hazard as a dead moth is on the wind—the heart of man refuses to believe it can be so with him. To be created only to be abandoned—he will not think that the forces of existence are so cruel and so unrelenting and so fruitless. In the world he may learn to say that he thinks so, and is resigned to it; but in loneliness the penumbra of his own existence lies on all creation, and the winds and the stars and the daylight and the night and the vast unknown mute forces of life—all seem to him that they must of necessity be either his ministers or his destroyers.
Bruno went on with a shudder in his veins—beholding Argol.
He had released his weary mule from his burden and walked up the steep path between his winter fields, holding the drooping mouth of the beast. It was very cold in the hours before morning on the heights where he dwelt. There was ice on the roots of the pines where the rain waters had settled, and the north winds chased [Page 213] the great clouds around the head of the hill. His home was dark and silent.
When he had put the mule in the stall and thrown down hay for it, he entered his house with the cheerlessness of the place closing in upon him like a numbing frost. He paused on his threshold and looked back at the southward skies.
Argol was shining over Rome.
He set his lantern down before his crucifix that hung against the wall.
“Are you not stronger than that star?” he muttered to it. “I have tried hard to serve you—are you not stronger?—can you not save him?—let the star take my soul if it must have one. My soul!—not his. Do you not hear? Do we all cry—and you are deaf? Let the star do its worst on me—that does not matter. Do you hear?”
The crucifix hung motionless upon the wall. He had expected some sign; he knew not what.
Men had often been answered by such signs; so the priest told him; out of the lives of saints in the legend of gold.[Page 214]
But for him all was dark; all was silent. No voice answered him in his perplexity. Nothing cared.
Only through his open door he saw the blackness of the night and Argol shining.
10. CHAPTER X.
“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.[Page 216]
“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 brandbran (sic) 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 [Page 217] 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 [Page 218] —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 [Page 219] 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 [Page 220] 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 [Page 221] 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 [Page 222] 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.[Page 223]
“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 [Page 224] 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 [Page 225] 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 [Page 226] 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 [Page 227] 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 [Page 228] 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 [Page 229] 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.
11. CHAPTER XI.
Bruno 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 [Page 231] lost coming over the pinewoods, sometimes there is a snow‐storm, and the sheep want seeing to; sometimes there is the old roistering 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 to the [Page 232] 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; because every one was more or less afraid of Bruno.
Bruno shrugged his shoulders and took up his spade again.
“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 swung up where you never see or hear it ever again—that seems sad; my bells are all ringing in the clouds, saving [Page 233] 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 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.”
“Aye,” 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.”
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 day.”
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.[Page 234]
The old man nodded and went—to wend his way to Carmignano.
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 everything; 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 [Page 235] 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? The thought went confusedly through his brain as he cleaned out the stalls of his cattle.
Down in the plain all the bells were ringing, the sweet peal of S. Giusto replying to the long full chime of Peretola from across the water, and all the other villages calling to one another over the wintry fields; some with one little humble voice, some with many melodious notes, while down in the hollow, where the city lay, the deep cathedral bells were booming, and all the countless churches answering; but Bruno on his hill heard none of these.
He only heard the winds moaning amongst the unbending pines.
He only heard the toads cry to one another, feeling rain coming, “Crake! crake! crake! We love a wet world as men an evil way. The skies are going to weep; let us be merry, Crock! crock! crock!”
And they waddled out—slow, quaint, black things, with arms akimbo, and stared at him with [Page 236] their shrewd hard eyes. They would lie snug a thousand years with a stone and be quite happy.
Why were not men like that?
Toads are kindly in their way, and will get friendly. Only men seem to them such fools.
The toad is a fakeer, and thinks the beatitude of life lies in contemplation. Men fret and fuss and fume, and are for ever in haste; the toad eyes them with contempt.
The toads looked at Bruno now, and he at them. A soft thick rain had begun to fall. It scudded over the plain, and crossed the river, and came up the hill‐side, dim and yet dense, stealing noiselessly, and spreading vastly, as if it were the ghostly hosts of a dead army.
Sometimes on the hill‐tops, clouds would break that never touched the plain; sometimes in the plain it was pouring, while the hills were all in sunshine. Now mountain and valley had the rain alike.
Bruno worked on in it, not heeding, till the water ran off his hair, and his shirt was soaking. [Page 237] He did not think about it. He was thinking of what the men had said: “A light woman out of France.”
All the evil in the world might be happening that very hour, and he would know nothing.
There was no way to move; no way to hear. He was like a chained dog.
“I am like the toads,” he thought; “the whole city might burn to the ground, and they would croak in their pool, and know nothing.”
But he was not like the toads, for he dreaded this fire, which he could not see.
It rained thus several days.
Bruno saw no one. He had his hands full with the birth of weakly lambs, in the wet ague‐giving weather, that made the mossy ground under the pines a swamp. One or two nights he watched all night by a sheep in her trouble; with the great pines over his head, and the broken rocks strewn around. He worked early and late, seeing no creature, except the dumb lad he had as shepherd and the dogs. It was dark before four in the afternoons. He took his big lanthorn into the shed, and hewed wood, or [Page 238] ground maize, all the evening, with the heads of the oxen near him, over their half door. He felt as if he could not face the cold lonely kitchen and living room, with their empty hearths.
Do whatever he might, he looked across to where Rome was, and thought of the “light woman out of France.”
The drenching rains hid Argol, with all the other stars. But he had seen it that once. It was enough. It haunted him.
Silently and uselessly he raged against his own impotence. Why had he not been any creature free to roam?—a gipsy, a tramp, a vagabond, anything so that he could now have set his face to the south, and bent his steps over the hills.
The habits of his life were on him like so many chains. The soil held him as the flat stone holds the sucker of leather. Change as possible never occurred to him. The peasant thinks no more of quitting his land than the sentinel his post. Come what may, there he stays.
Several of these days and nights went by; it [Page 239] rained always. There was no communication from village to village. A grey cloud overspread the whole great landscape.
Bruno worked as if it were bright harvest weather; and it went ill with some of his ewes, and tried him; but going and coming, rising and lying down, sitting in his sheep hut on the mountain side, and working the millstones by torchlight in the shed, one thought alone went with him, and racked him sore: was it true what they said of the boy in Rome?
At last the rain cleared; the roads grew more passable; the last lamb was born that would be born for some weeks; he put the mule in the shafts, and drove down into market with his sacks of potatoes. When he had done his business, a thought struck him. He went to the place near the Rubaconte bridge, where he had seen the dancing girl of Istriel.
The painting was gone. He asked them if they had any pictures of it; the things that the sun took? They had, and sold him one. It seemed to him very dear. It cost more than a flask of wine.[Page 240]
But he took it with him.
“What is that man, Istriel?” asked Bruno, of the seller of the copies, who was an old Florentine, and knew something of painters and their ways, and had been about the Villa Medicis in earlier years in Rome.
The man shrugged his shoulders.
“He is Istriel. That is enough to say. It is as when one says any other great name. It speaks for itself.”
“Great! From painting wantons!”
“Tiziano painted them.”
“He is not of our country?”
“No. Of France. But he often works in Rome. He has a palace there.”
“I thought painters were poor? How should he live in a palace?”
“They are poor for the most part, and I think it is best for their pictures when they keep so. But he is not. He paints naked women so beautifully that all the world runs to see. Not to be bigger than your time is—that is a wonderful secret to make you rich.”
“I do not understand,” said Bruno.[Page 241]
The man who had seen hundreds of students come and go out of the class‐rooms and the painting‐rooms, laughed.
“Oh, I understand—because I see so much of them. They are all alike. They come with great bright eyes, and lean cheeks, and empty purses. They study our giants, they do beautiful things. No one wants them. They starve a few years, then they see what the world likes. They change, and paint wantons in silk clothes, or without, as large as life; or else, little rapiered mannikins, frilled and furbelowed, no bigger than a shoe‐buckle. Then they make money. This Istriel has made more money than them all, because he draws almost with the force of our Michel Angelo, and colours with the softness of their Greuze. He is a wise man, too. He knows his age. I remember him well a student down in Rome. A handsome, gay, charming lad, with great genius. He might have done better things than his naked women. But I do not know—very likely. He is right. They call him the new Tiziano, and he is at the head of his school, and can get its weight in gold for any picture. No man needs more.”[Page 242]
“I do not understand,” said Bruno, whom all these words only confused.
The old man chuckled, and nodded, and turned to other people to sell other photographs of the Sister of the Seven Dancers. For many a long year he had swept out the floors, and set the easels, and trimmed the palettes in the Villa Medicis, and had seen the young artists grow old, and knew how they grew to the greed of the world, as vines to the twists of the maple.
Bruno was perplexed. Painters had ever been to him mysterious religious men, who lived to the glory of God, and made church walls and monastic altars eloquent with sacred meaning to the common people. That was what he thought; he who, from the time when he had run with his father’s mule to market, had trodden the streets of Del Sarto, and Giotto, and the Memmi brethren, and said his ave in haste in the cool summer dawns, in Or San Michele before the white tabernacle of Orgagna.
Istriel was nothing to him. Yet his soul rose in a sullen scorn against the man who had so fair a gift from heaven, and only used it to show a [Page 243] dancer bounding away over “the primrose path to the everlasting bonfire,” and taking the foolish souls of the young and the guileless with her.
Bruno would uncover his head before a Madonna or a Magdalen, and feel, without knowing why, that those who could make such things live on the pale plaster or the brown cypress wood, were men worthy of honour. But against the painter of Innocence, all the manliness and all the strength of his character, arrayed themselves in fierce contempt.
Going out of the street of the Archibusieri that day, he met Savio. The old man stopped him.
“So they expect your boy in the town to‐night, for a great gala. What! Did you not know? Perhaps he meant to surprise you. He has done that before. No doubt he will come round by the seaway from Rome to Signa.”
“It is possible,” muttered Bruno. “He may be there now, then!”
“Like enough. I heard them saying in the streets something, I am not sure what, of a great festa for the court, and of the king, and of your [Page 244] boy being sent for. He would be sure to come by the sea, I think. Most likely he is already there. You had better go home. Besides, the lambs must not long be left.”
“No,” said Bruno, almost stupidly.
Was it possible Signa was so near as this, and all the gossip of the woman that held him was untrue? No doubt the boy meant to surprise him. Each time he had done so. Each time, when his letters had been few and brief, he had returned safely; glad and well and proud. No doubt what the men had said had been a folly; born of jealousy and disparagement, the twin parasites that feed on all success, and kill it if they can.
Bruno’s heart grew light.
He did not stop to doubt or question. It seemed so natural. Nothing was likelier than that the lad, summoned for any fresh or special honour, would have had no space to write of it, but would have come round by the seaway to tell the tale of it, and give a brief glad greeting, and then pass down into the city. Nothing likelier.
Bruno left Savio, in haste, thinking of the [Page 245] boy reaching the hill thence by the early morning time, as he no doubt had done, and finding him absent. All these precious hours lost, too! It was now one o’clock. “Toccò” 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 summoned, 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 grandeur; the king did not want him.
His heart grew light again, and he felt proud as he heard the people talking in the streets, of [Page 246] how the princes had ordered this great night of Lamia; and how the theatre would be lit “like day;” and how standing room there was not to be had, no, though you could give all the jewels and gold and silver for it off the Jewellers’ Bridge. He felt proud. All this stir and tumult and wonder and homage in the city was for Signa; princes seemed almost like his servants, 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 [Page 247] 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 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.[Page 248]
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 S. Giusto on his high tower; the leafless vines and the leafless poplars; the farriers’ [Page 249] 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 bastion, 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 unbroken.[Page 250]
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 him.
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 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.[Page 251]
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 himself, 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 summoned 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 nobody 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.[Page 252]
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 see it, quietly wrapped in his cloak, amongst the throng.
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. Midnight passed. The wind [Page 253] had blown his lamp out. He lighted two great lanterns, and hung them up against the door‐posts; 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 lanterns hanging outside; on the chance.
He slept little; he was up while it was still dark, and 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 cold.
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.[Page 254]
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.
“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 ascent.
“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 [Page 255] 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 messenger. 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.
He stripped the covering off the gun.
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, beautifully mounted and inlaid with silver; amongst the chasing of it he could see engraved lines: he could distinguish his own name and Signa’s—the one he knew the look of, having seen it so often on summons papers for mad deeds done against the petty laws of his commune; the other he knew because it was painted over the railway place upon the hill. He could decipher Bruno—Signa; and he guessed [Page 256] the rest: a date, no doubt, and some few words of memory or love.
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, falling 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 [Page 257] turpentine 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 feet.
Bruno watched the fire.
After a brief time its phrenzy spent itself; the flames died down; the reddened wood grew [Page 258] 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 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 rod rose dropped, withered by the heat.
12. CHAPTER XII.
February days are in the Signa country often soft as the May weather of the north.
The trees are setting for leaf, the fields are green, the mountains seem full of light; the birds sing and the peasants too, the brooks course joyously down the hills, the grass is full of snowdrops and the pearly bells of the leucoium, and millions of violets pale and purple; there are grand sunsets with almost the desert red in them, and cold transparent nights, in which the greatness of Orion reigns in its fullest glory, and, watching for the dawn, there hangs that sad star which we call the Serpent’s Heart, and the Arabian astrologers called the Solitary One.
The stars were still out when Bruno with each dawn rose from his short, troubled, lonely [Page 260] sleep, and went out to his work as was his wont.
He worked early and late. There was nothing else for him to do.
He was consumed with impatience and anxiety, but he laboured on in his fields. To leave them never occurred to him. The sailor in mid‐ocean is not more chained to one narrow home than Bruno was by habit and custom and narrowness of knowledge to his high hill tops.
A fever of desire to hear, to see, to learn, to make sure, consumed him. He ate his very heart away with the gnawing wish to know the worst. But Rome was as vague to him and as far off as the white moon that faded away over his pine‐woods as the daylight waned to noon.
On his own land, in his own labour, he was a strong skilful man, able to cope with any labour and turn aside any disaster. But away from his own soil he knew nothing. Custom and ignorance hang like a cloud between the peasant and the outer world. He is like the ancient geographers of old, who feared to step off the [Page 261] shore they knew lest they should fall into an immeasurable, incomprehensible abyss.
Bruno would have walked through fire or plunged headlong in the sea to serve or save the boy; but the lack of knowledge paralysed him; Rome to him was far off as the stars; he could only work and wait, and rise in the dark coldness before morning, haunted with nameless fear, and counting the dull dead days as they dragged on, and meeting the old sacristan who said always, “he does not write;—oh, that is because all is well; when young things are happy they forget.”
Once or twice he took out a handful of money from off the copper pitcher set behind the chimney bricks, and went to his priest. “When we pay for masses for the dead it does do them good?” he said. “Hell if they be in it gives them up—lets them loose—is it not so?”
“Most certainly, my son,” said the old pastor.
“Then can we not buy them for the living? There is hell on earth,” said Bruno, and emptied out his handful of curled yellow notes, and looked at his priest with wistful pitiful eyes.
“Tell me what the trouble is,” said the Par‐ [Page 262] roco, who was the best and kindliest of souls, and had always had a weakness for this sinner whom he had confessed and shriven every Easter for so many years.
“I am not sure what it is,” said Bruno, and told him what he knew.
“Masses will do nothing, since there is a woman,” said the old priest, sadly.
“Are women stronger than hell then?”
“I have lived seventy years; and I think so. But it is not a case for masses. Prayer for your lad I will say with my full heart’s willingness. But put up your notes. I will not take them.”
But Bruno would leave them on the little wooden seat of the sacristy. “Give them away in charity,” he said; “perhaps heaven will remember it to the boy.” And he would leave them there.
“We may get a soul out of purgatory, but a lad out of a woman’s toils—that is harder,” thought the priest, but he only said, rolling up the notes: “I will make sick folks happier with them, Bruno, since you wish it. That can neither harm you nor him.”[Page 263]
“Pray for him, never mind me,” said Bruno, simply; and he left the little old red church, with its high crumbling tower, where the daws built, and the owls, and the beautiful blue jays.
It was a little solace to him that prayer should rise up there in the stillness of the hills, and pass out of the narrow windows with the wind, and go up through the sunshine and the clouds to where they said God and the saints were. Who knew what it might do?
But it gave little rest to the anxious, troubled, heavy soul of the man. Nature had made Bruno for action; to pray, and hope, and trust, and wait resigned, was a woman’s way; it was not his.
The bitter ferocity, too, with which he had broken and burned the gun had not passed away. With Bruno nothing passed. His passions were flames which burned their passage indelibly. He kept the secret of his pain in his own mind unspoken; but the rage with which he had destroyed what had seemed to him as insult—as payment in base metal when the gold of remembrance and of affection was withheld—that rage chafed in him always.[Page 264]
He never opened his lips to blame Signa. He never let any one in his hearing say they marvelled at Signa’s forgetfulness of him. When any man said within earshot of him that it was strange that the boy should have passed a night in the city and never sent any tidings home, Bruno had answered him sharply: “The lad has great things to think of; he belongs to all the world now; not to one hill‐top; when I complain of him others may do so too; till then let them have a care.” And people knowing his humours were afraid, and never said a slighting word; but supposed that Bruno was content.
But the fury with which he had thrust the rifle into the fire consumed him always. The gift—hurting him like a blow, cast to him as it seemed like so much wage—had dug a chasm between him and the boy he loved.
Any other time he might have taken it as a symbol of grateful tenderness. But now—when Signa forsook him‐it added a sting to the sharpness of his pain under neglect. It seemed to him the very insolence of success of triumph of riches, which said,—“So my debts are paid.”[Page 265]
In cold reason the next day, when he raked out the fire and found one silver plate unburned amidst the embers, he stamped it under his heel, and hurled it into the deep well at his door.
Signa had had the unhesitating unhalting sacrifice of twenty years of his life, and thought to pay him by a gunsmith’s glittering toy!
That was how it seemed to him.
So he worked on amidst the fields, and let the days go: between him and the boy there was a gulf of silence. Bruno’s heart revolted against him. He asked himself why he had let the years go by and lived without woman’s love, and the laughter of children, and the good will of men which comes from easy spending, that Pippa’s son might have his way and pay him with forgetfulness? Why had he consumed a score of years in rigid self‐denial, ceaseless labour, and barren solitude for this boy’s sake only in the end to be abandoned for the first wanton face that smiled, and recompensed with such reward as careless princes give the forest‐guards that drive their game?
Yet the great loyal love in him cleaved even to [Page 266] what he thought thankless and thoughtless and forgetful. He still would have bought Signa’s peace at any price of his own body or soul; he still said to the priest, “Pray for him; for me it does not matter.”
But in the short soft days and in the long cold nights there was a heavy darkness always on him. Once he said to the priest:
“If she take him from me—there is no God.”
And he toiled in his fields with the fragrance of the coming spring in all the soil, and looked across at the low lines of the hills, and felt his heart like a stone, his feet like lead.
One fresh chill daybreak, as he worked with the silver dew on every blade of grass, and spread like a white veil over all the hills, his brother’s voice called him.
Looking up he saw Lippo. He stood on the other side of one of the low stone walls that are built across the sloping fields to stay the force of water coming from the heights in winter rains.
Bruno did as he had done ten years and more; he worked on and seemed never to see the figure of his brother between him and the light.[Page 267]
They met a hundred times a year and more; Bruno did always so. For him Lippo had ceased to live.
The priest had urged him vainly to forgiveness.
“Who cannot hate, cannot love;” Bruno had answered always. “Forgetfulness is for women. Forgiveness is for dogs: I have said it.”
“Bruno, may I speak a word to you?” said Lippo, gently. He had his softest and most pensive face; his eyes were tender and regretful; his voice was calm and kindly; in his boot he had slipped a knife, for fear—no one could tell,—Bruno was violent, and he had left his cowherd in the lower fields within a call; but in his look and attitude Lippo had the simplest trustfulness and candour. He seemed oppressed and sorrowful: that was all.
Bruno went on and worked as he had done on the day that he had heard his brother was the owner of the neighbouring land. He was cutting his olive‐trees. He slashed the branches and flung them from him with force; so that if they would they might strike Lippo in the face.
Lippo watched the gleaming steel play in the [Page 268] grey leaves; and was glad he had bethought him to slip that knife within his boot.
“Bruno,” he said, very gently. “Do not be in haste or rage. I come in all true brotherliness; the saints are my witnesses. You have been in anger against me many years. Some of your anger was just; much unjust. I could not defend myself from your accusations of having dealt ill with Pippa’s child unless I had blamed Nita—and what husband can shield himself at his wife’s cost? Poor soul! She has many virtues, but her hand is rough, and her tongue harsh, and mothers think it a merit to hurt other children to benefit their own. A woman’s virtue is locked up in the cupboard by her own hearthstone. Nita has been an honest wife to me; but she has—a temper.”
Bruno slashed a great bough from his tree, and flung it downward; it struck Lippo. He moved aside, blinded for the moment, then went gently on.
“A temper:—oh, I know it, none so well. No doubt the poor child suffered from it, and were it not that in marriage one must serve a wife at [Page 269] every hazard, and take her wrong‐doing as one’s own, I could have proved to you with ease that what you thought my treachery was none of mine, but bitter pain and grief to me; aye, indeed. Again and again I have gone supperless to give the little lad my portion. You know I never was master in my house. The money has always been hers and her father’s. Never once have they let me forget that, though Baldo is a good soul in much.”
Bruno descended from his ladder, lifted it from the tree upon his shoulder, and turned to leave his olives, as though there were no man speaking or waiting on the other side the wall. He would not waste words on Lippo, and, if he looked at him he knew that he would do some evil on him;—this brother who had cheated him and got his land.
He shouldered his ladder, and turned to mount the sloping field.
“Wait!” cried the other. “Bruno—as surely as we are sons of one mother, I come to you in all amity.”
Bruno went on up the hill.[Page 270]
“Bruno, wait!” cried Lippo. “By the Lord above us, I come with good intent.”
Bruno did not pause, nor look back.
He went up the slope of the grass‐lands, leisurely, as though there were no one near.
“But if I come to make amends?” said Lippo.
Bruno laughed, a short deep laugh, fierce as a fierce dog’s bite; and went on his way against the glittering dews of the rising ground.
Lippo cried to him from the wall,—
“But I have journeyed up from Rome.”
Rome! Involuntarily, unconsciously, Bruno stopped, and turned his head over his shoulder. The name of the city struck him like a shot. It was the last word he would have dreamed of hearing. It was the place for ever in his mind. It was the dim, majestic, terrible world that Argol shone on in the frosty nights.
Lippo, who had never travelled beyond the hills round the Lastra and the town walls of Florence, had journeyed back from Rome!
In the natural movement of surprise and wonder he halted a moment under the olive trees and looked back.[Page 271]
Lippo took that one moment of riveted attention. He leaped the wall lightly, and joined his brother.
“Bruno—as I live, I come to make amends. I want to speak to you about the boy. If you will not listen, it is he who will suffer. He destroys himself—there.”
Bruno halted. Mechanically he shifted the ladder from his shoulder, and set it up against the nearest tree. He was taken by surprise. He was forced to show his sense of his brother’s presence and his brother’s words. He was shaken out of his stern self‐control, his impenetrable reticence. Do what he would, he felt his face pale, his eyes fall, under Lippo’s. Passionate questions sprang to his lips; but how could he trust a traitor and a liar?
In the instant of his hesitation, Lippo spoke.
“I have been down to Rome. On business. To place my son in trade there. Nay, listen. All the city will tell you I speak truth. Of course I heard of Signa. It was impossible not to hear. At the Apollo they play his Actea; all the town is full of him. Of his great genius [Page 272] no one can say enough. But if some means be not found to save him, he will be destroyed, body and soul. A woman has hold of him. He only lives for her. I caught sight of him once two nights ago; he was with her in the moonlight. He looks so changed; one would not know him for that happy, simple lad of our last autumn time. Listen. All boys have follies. This might pass as such a folly does. But it will not do so—no. Because this woman is not as others are. She is the vilest of the vile, but beautiful:—the saints forgive me, but when I saw her, I felt one might do any crime for such a face as that. They call her Innocence! In mockery, no doubt. For they say there is no living thing more cruel than she is, nor more depraved, nor more voracious of all kinds of wealth. That is the worst. This woman is rich. The boy is poor. You know what they will say—he lives upon her, or they say he does. I know it is not true. Your Signa is too proud and pure for that. But, still, they say so; and great men, while they praise his genius, look askance on him—so I hear. Nay:—it is a sorcery. A strong will [Page 273] would break from it. But the lad is not strong. When God gives genius, I think he makes the brain of some strange glorious stuff, that takes all strength out of the character, and all sight out of the eyes. Those artists—they are like the birds we blind: they sing, and make people weep for very joy to hear them; but they cannot see their way to peck the worms, and are for ever wounding their breasts against the wires. No doubt it is a great thing to have genius: but it is a sort of sickness, after all; and when love comes—”
Bruno, standing with his back against the olive, heard his brother’s voice run on, and did not stop him. His eyes were fastened with anxious, hungry pain on Lippo’s face. He knew that Lippo spoke the truth.
“The boy has amorous fancies, like any other,” he muttered. “Why not? Why not? You hate him, because you wronged him. Therefore you make much from little. You lie now; you always lied. Get you gone—while I let you go in peace.”
Lippo sighed.[Page 274]
“Nay, Bruno—it is you who do wrong to me. Why should I come and tell you this? It cannot pleasure me, nor hurt me. Only one has some natural affections, some bowels of compassion—and he was poor Pippa’s son! I do not blame the lad; a boy like that. And if you saw the beauty of the woman ! Only, I said to myself, Bruno should know of this; and, rather than ask a stranger to meddle in it, I came myself. Because he is the woman’s toy, her tool, her feel, her slave. He does nothing with his time. He never touches pen nor lute, nor anything of art. I hear she says to him, ‘Give me a rival in your art, I leave you.’ And he, to do her will, flings all his life away. Some say she loves him really. Some say that it is only wantonness, because the world talks of him; and so she likes to rule him, and, in a month or two, will break his heart, and send him out a beggar and an idiot. Nay—I say nothing more than all Rome says; in truth, not a tittle so much. It is the common gossip of the streets. The woman is rich. She has had great lovers, princes and the like. The boy is known to live under her [Page 275] roof, to be lapped in luxury;—you know what men will say.”
Bruno sprang forward and seized his brother by the shoulders, in an iron grasp.
“It is a lie of Rome—a lie, a lie. They grudge my boy his glory, and so they stone him thus, and fling their mud upon him!”
“It is not a lie. Think—is he not silent to you? Is he frank with you, and glad, and truthful, as of old? It is true, terribly true: a woman has bewitched him.”
“As God lives—do you say this in honesty and pity or brutally, to triumph in his weakness?”
Lippo looked him full in the eyes, candidly.
“In honesty and pity.”
Bruno gazed in his brother’s face. Lippo’s eyes met him in steadiness and sorrow. Bruno let him go, and stood stupefied, mastering, as best he could, his own suffering, lest Lippo should read it and be glad. In his heart, he knew that the story brought from Rome was true.
Lippo took up his narrative; he had a sweet, [Page 276] pathetic voice, and skill in speech, like almost all his countrymen.
“Bruno, I know I have offended you; nay, more—wronged you, in the days gone by. I am poor, amongst crafty well‐to‐do folks, who goad me on; I have many children; I have a troubled home, and noisy hearth. I know I have thought too much of getting on in life, and laying by; and so was untrue to your trust sometimes, and so lost your confidence—justly. That I see now. And you have been harsh and violent. You cannot gainsay that. But as the angels watch us this hour in heaven, I have no single thought but the boy’s good in what I tell you now. He is so young. He is soft‐hearted as a girl. He is alone in a great turbulent world, that first turns his head with flattery and homage, and then reviles him the first moment that, he falls. They tell me it is always so. The world is a spoilt princeling, and the genius in it is the dog it first flings cakes to, and then bids go drown. They say so. But, I think Signa may be saved. He is so young. It cannot be that this sudden passion has killed all natural, innocent love and [Page 277] gratitude in him. That is impossible, his heart is good: even to me—whom you had made him hold as his foe—he was most gentle always. It cannot be he has forgotten all he owes to you, or would be altogether deaf to what you urge on him. It cannot be that all old memories and old affections are dead in him.”
Bruno stood with the grey wood and leaves of the old olive‐tree behind him; his head was bent; his face was very white, under the brown hues from the sun; his lips quivered under the dark, drooping hair; he strove to seem calm, but Lippo read the pain that tortured him.
“It is too true, indeed,” said Lippo. “Where a woman is, and the love of her, there reason has no hold, and gratitude no abiding place. And she is beautiful. She makes you dizzy, even seeing her go by in the moonlight, you standing in the gutter. After our brown, dusky, sturdy maidens, that white wonder seems more than a woman—somehow. They rave of her in Rome. It seems she has abandoned all her mighty lords, and doats on Signa; and they do say, too, that in a month or two she will veer round and laugh at [Page 278] him, and take up her lords again; and then—there will be worse evil still. Because the boy is mad for her, and believes her all she is not. When he learns the truth, there will be trouble; and any day may show it. When her fancy ends, then what will become of the lad? I spoke to an old man, whom my friend knew, one of the flute‐players of the opera‐house, and he told me that they think the boy’s genius will die out altogether, he cares for nothing—only for the woman and her whims and will. It is a sorcery. Signa is not like other youths. He was always thinking of the angels, and of all manner of strange sights and sounds, that none but himself could ever see or hear. Now that he loves this woman as he loved his music—it will go hard with him. Because a wanton cannot ever love. That grown men know.”
Bruno was silent. His face moved with a great emotion that he had no longer power to conceal; he could no longer affect to doubt his brother’s words, or deny the things they spoke of; the misery and danger for the boy spread before him as if they were written on the limestone hill [Page 279] and on the cloudless winter sky; he forgot all else.
His brother’s treacherous deeds against himself paled into nothing; his true and loyal faith to Pippa’s son made his own wrongs grow as nought to him; he would have let snake bite him to serve Signa. So he let the triumph of Lippo sting him, thinking only of the peril of the boy.
“Why have you come to say all this to me? You have hated the boy, and been false to him and to me. Of all this—if it be true—you are glad.”
“Nay! God knows you wrong me!” cried Lippo, as with a burst of generous indignation, of pained sincerity. “You wrong me cruelly. The poor boy I never hated—heaven and earth!—why should I? I doubted that he was Pippa’s son. I did believe him yours. But either way he was my kith and kin. I erred. I say so. No man can do more. But chiefly I erred through weakness, letting a too violent woman have her way in my little household. I have admitted my fault there. I did not continue loyal to your trust as [Page 280] I should have done. I sacrificed duty to the sake of keeping peace at home. In a word—I was a coward. You who are brave as lions are, have furious scorn for that. But Bruno, as we are sons of one sainted mother, my heart is free of every taint of bitterness against you or the boy. I have been proud of his greatness. Any ray of it is so much light and honour on us all. I grieve, as any creature with human blood in him would do, to know that all his future has been put in pawn to a vile woman. I come to tell you because I said—how should he hear anything on that lonely hill? And because I thought that if you saw him—went to him—some change might come, or you might save him from some rash, mad deed, when he finds out what thing it is he worships. That is why I come. Upbraid me if you will; but do not doubt me.”
“Do you know more of her?”
“Where does she come from?”
“From France, I think.”
“She is called that name—Innocence?”
“It is the same woman whose likeness was shown in the town yonder?”
“That I do not know.”
“A man called Istriel painted her.”
“That I do not know either; I only know what I have told you.”
“She passes for rich?”
“She is rich.”
“How long has—he—been with her?”
“Two months—or something more; so they say.”
“Where does she live?”
“At a palace called the Sciallara; going up by what they call the Campidoglio.”
“That is hard to remember. Write it.”
Lippo took out a torn letter and a pencil, and, making the wall his desk, wrote it in the clumsy handwriting which he had taught himself ]ate in life. “You will do nothing rash,” he said, pleadingly, as he gave the paper.
Bruno took it.
“I cannot tell what to do.”
His face was dark and weary; his breath came quickly; his eyes had a sort of piteous wish for [Page 282] counsel in them; he was so utterly ignorant of what course to take. He could not see his way. He would have grasped any hand as a friend’s that could have led him through the darkness.
“I wish I had not told you,” said Lippo, with sudden candid self‐rebuke and regret in his vexed tones. “Perhaps I should have held my tongue. But it seemed horrible. To know the lad in such a woman’s power, and not speak of it to you, to whom he is the very apple of the eye, though he forgets so—”
Bruno winced, as a brave steer that has borne the heat and labour of the day unflinchingly winces at the fly that stings him in the wrung nostril, where the iron is.
“You did right to tell me,” he said simply. “It was good in you and honest.”
“I asked the grace of heaven on it,” answered Lippo.
Bruno looked at him.
Lippo’s eyes met his with clear and honest candour.
A short troubled sigh heaved Bruno’s chest quickly for a moment.[Page 283]
“I must think,” he muttered, and he turned and took the ladder on his shoulder, and began to mount the hill.
“Stay, Bruno,” said his brother, “Stay one moment. We have been sundered so long. Tell me we are friends?”
Bruno looked at him, turning his head, as he went slowly up the grass between the olives. His own eyes were very sad, and had a heavy dark reproach in them.
“I am not a man to forget,” he said, “A foe is a foe—always—to me. A traitor always a traitor. But if you mean well by the lad, and would save him, I will forgive you if I can.”
Then he went onward.
Lippo stood silent; a little faint smile came on his mouth.
“He will go to Rome,” he thought.
Suddenly Bruno turned once more and came downward to him with a swift stride. The generous, fierce, tender nature of him welled up in a sudden warmth and emotion.
“Lippo, you have done good now, it shall cancel the evil. I cannot forget; it is not in me [Page 284] to forget; but if I save the boy we will live in fellowship. You stole the land—yes. But I will ask God’s grace to wash that out of mind with me. If you mean well by the lad—that is enough.”
He stretched his hand out: Lippo took it.
Then they parted.
Bruno went upward to his house, leaving the olive trees untouched.
Lippo went downward into the Lastra.
“He will go to Rome,” he thought, “and he will quarrel with the boy, or kill the wanton.”
And he smiled, going through the buoyant springlike air, as the western wind blew keen from the mountains.
Lippo knew that wise men do not do harm to whatever they may hate.
They drive it on to slay itself.
So without blood‐guiltiness they get their end, yet stainless go to God.
Lippo, content, walked on in the brilliant sunshine of the morning; he smiled on children as he passed them and gave a beggar money.
As he went back he saw Palma carrying up [Page 285] linen to wash in the washing‐place behind her on the hill‐side.
“Shall I tell her,” thought he, and he paused a moment. But Lippo was a kindly man when he had no end to serve by being cruel; and he disliked giving pain, unless he gained something by it. He had soft words and gentle deeds for every body when they cost him nothing. So he went on and left Palma in ignorance; Palma, who every year, on the feast of the dead, prayed for her sister as for one safe in heaven.
13. CHAPTER XIII.
A Little later the girl had her linen plunged in the cold deep water, and stood washing with half a dozen other women. To keep her brothers from want and a roof over all their heads, she had to take any and all work as it came; the rough with the smooth. She got a little something—washing the shirts and shifts of peasants too busy with field work to have time to do it for themselves, and Palma’s linen was always white, and always was well wrung out and dried.
Here and there on the hills there are these big water places, like the stone tanks that the women wash at in the streets of Rome. Only these tanks upon the hills are in wide wooden sheds, and have the green country shining through the doors of lattice‐work.[Page 287]
Palma was washing among the other women, the water was splashing and bubbling, the sun was shining, the wind was whistling, the tongues were chattering, she alone of all was silent, her bare arms in the cold brown pool.
“You are wanted,” the women said to her, surprised, for no one ever wanted her, unless, indeed, as they wanted the mule or the cart‐horse: she left the linen soaking, and went outside the wooden door.
Bruno stood there.
He put a little picture in her hand.
“Have ever you seen any one like that?” he asked her, covering all but the face of it. Palma’s brown cheek grew ashen: then the blood rushed over her forehead.
“What is it? Where did you get it?”
“Whom is it like?”
“It is like—Gemma; only it is a woman.”
“Yes, it is a woman.”
He laughed a little, and took his hand away and left the figure of the dancer of Istriel visible.
Palma coloured over her throat and up to her dusky growing hair.[Page 288]
“It is a shameful woman. Oh, why did you show me that?”
“It is only a picture,” said Bruno, moodily, and he pitched it into the water that flowed and foamed outside the washing‐house. She caught his arm.
“Why did you show it me? Do you know anything? Do you mean anything?”
“Nothing. It is only a picture.”
And he walked away.
She leant over the tank and reached and plucked it out from the water; it was a photograph, and the moisture ran off, and did not harm it. She stood and looked at it. She was alone against the white brick wall, her rough, blue skirt clung wet and close to her; she had a red handkerchief over her short cropped hair; the wind blew over her naked feet and her bared arms; the wide green hills were behind her, the brown wooden door of the shed before her; there was a cold azure sky above the golden budding trees.
She stood and looked at the picture. Her face burned, though she was all alone. She shuddered and hated it.[Page 289]
“He is a hard, cruel man,” she said. “How could he bring me such a thing ? My Gemma is safe with Christ.”
Then she threw the picture in the water again, and as it floated put a great stone on it and sunk it, and as it rose, flung another greater stone, and then another, and then another, until the picture dropped under it like a drowned dead thing, and lay at the bottom with the mud and weeds. She felt as if she slew a devil.
“My Gemma is with Christ,” she said; and she went back to the washing women and the hard work and the coarse linen, while the winter sun shone, and the winter wind blew.
14. CHAPTER XIV.
Bruno went straight to the steward, and told him that he was about to go to Rome.
It was as base to him to leave his land as it is to the soldier to desert his post.
The land was more than your mother; so he thought; it fed you all your life long, and gave you shelter when you were dead, and men would have you cumber their households no more. He loved every clod of the good sound earth, and every breath of its honest fresh fragrance. He looked to lie in it when he should be buried and gone for ever, by the side of Dina, under the pines, with his feet resting for ever on the mountain‐side that they had trodden so long. He had always a fancy that in his grave there he [Page 291] should know when the corn was springing and feel the soft rainfall.
The love of the country was in his blood, in his brain, in all the soul he had. He could not comprehend how life would go on with him elsewhere. He was rooted to his birthplace as an oak is to its forest.
Nevertheless he tore himself away.
He did not know what penalty might avenge, what fate might follow, his desertion of the soil. His lord might be furious. His possessions might be pillaged. When he returned he might find himself ruined, ejected, displaced;—if he returned at all;—if;—who could tell?
The thing he did was, to him, as if he stepped off a great precipice into the emptiness and nothingness of silent and unfathomable air.
Its bones might be broken in the fall, and his very existence cease to be.
Nevertheless he went: as he would have leapt off an actual height down into unknown space, if by so doing he could have saved the boy.
In the white marble of the great Borghese [Page 292] sculpture, Curtius leaps down, and the world hails a hero:—no one saw Bruno, or would have praised him had they seen, yet the courage was scarcely less, and the sacrifice nearly as absolute.
Indeed the hero saw glory in the bottomless abyss and darted to it:—the peasant saw nothing except impenetrable gloom and hopelessness. Yet he went; because the son of Pippa was in peril.
He went back to his homestead, and put all his things in order.
It was high noon.
He took out from its hiding place his copper pitcher with his savings in it. They were not much in value. He had had only one harvest time and one vintage to save from, since his all had been taken for the Actea. Such as they were he stitched them in the waistband of his trousers, and put a shirt or two up in a bundle, and so was ready for his journey. He could not go until evening. He worked all day; leaving everything as it should be, and so far as it was possible nothing for new hands to do; except so far as seeing to the beasts went, that was of necessity a new care every day.[Page 293]
He had been brought up on this wooded spur, looking down on the Signa country; all his loves and hatreds, joys and pains, had been known here; from the time he had plucked the maple leaves in autumn for the cattle with little brown five‐year‐old hands he had laboured here, never seeing the sun set elsewhere except on that one night at the sea. He was close rooted to the earth as the stonepines were and the oaks. It had always seemed to him that a man should die where he took life first, amongst his kindred and under the sods that his feet had run over in babyhood. He had never thought much about it, but unconsciously the fibres of his heart had twisted themselves round all the smallest and the biggest things of his home as the tendrils of a strong ivy bush fasten round a great tower and the little stones alike.
The wooden settle where his mother had sat; the shrine in the house wall; the copper vessels that had glowed in the wood‐fuel light when a large family had gathered there about the hearth; the stone well under the walnut tree where dead Dina had often stayed to smile on him; the [Page 294] cypress‐wood presses where Pippa had kept her feast‐day finery and her pearls; the old vast sweet‐smelling sheds and stables where he had threshed and hewn and yoked his oxen thirty years if one: all these things, and a hundred like them, were dear to him with all the memories of his entire life; and away from them he could know no peace.
He was going away into a great darkness. He had nothing to guide him. The iron of a wasted love, of a useless sacrifice, was in his heart. His instinct drove him where there was peril for Pippa’s son:—that was all.
If this woman took the lad away from him—where was there any mercy or justice, earthly or divine? That was all he asked himself, blindly and stupidly; as the oxen seem to ask it with their mild sad eyes as they strain under the yoke and goad, suffering, and not knowing why they suffer.
Nothing was clear to Bruno.
Only life had taught him that Love is the brother of Death.
One thing and another had come between him [Page 295] and the lad he cherished. The dreams of the child, the desires of the youth, the powers of art, the passion of genius, one by one had come in between him and loosened his hold, and made him stand aloof as a stranger. But Love he had dreaded most of all; Love which slays with one glance dreams and art and genius, and lays them dead as rootless weeds that rot in burning suns.
Now Love had come.
He worked all day, holding the sickness of fear off him as best he could, for he was a brave man;—only he had wrestled with fate so long, and it seemed always to beat him, and almost he grew tired.
He cut a week’s fodder for the beasts, and left all things in their places, and then, as the day darkened, prepared to go.
Tinello and Pastore lowed at him, thrusting their broad white foreheads and soft noses over their stable door.
He turned and stroked them in farewell.
“Poor beasts!” he muttered, “shall I never muzzle and yoke you ever again?”
His throat grew dry, his eyes grew dim. He [Page 296] was like a man who sails for a voyage on unknown seas, and neither he nor any other can tell whether he will ever return.
He might come back in a day; he might come back never.
Multitudes, well used to wander, would have laughed at him. But to him it was as though he set forth on the journey which men call death.
In the grey lowering evening he kissed the beasts on their white brows; there was no one there to see his weakness, and year on year he had decked them with their garlands of hedge flowers, and led them up on God’s day to have their strength blessed by the priest—their strength that laboured with his own from dawn to dark over the bare brown fields.
Then he turned his back on his own home, and went down the green sides of the hill, and lost sight of his birthplace as the night fell.
All through the night he was borne away by the edge of the sea, along the wild windy shores, through the stagnant marshes and the black pools where the buffalo and the wild boar herded, past the deserted cities of the coast, and [Page 297] beyond the forsaken harbours of Æneas and of Nero.
The west wind blew strong; the clouds were heavy; now and then the moon shone on a sullen sea; now and then the darkness broke over rank maremma vapours; at times he heard the distant bellowing of the herds, at times he heard the moaning of the water; mighty cities, lost armies, slaughtered hosts, foundered fleets, were underneath that soil and sea, whole nations had their sepulchres on that low windblown shore. But of these he knew nothing.
It only seemed to him that day would never come.
Once or twice he fell asleep for a few moments, and waking in that confused noise of the stormy night and the wild water, and the frightened herds, thought that he was dead and that this sound was the passing of the feet of all the living multitude going for ever to and fro, unthinking, over the depths of the dark earth where he lay.
15. CHAPTER XV.
Lippo in this last lengthening day of February found hours of sunshine and of leisure to loiter in and out the Lastra doors, set open to the noonday brightness and the smell of the air from the hills, which brought the fragrance of a world of violets with it.
Lippo, with sad eyes and softened voice, said to his gossips:
“My brother is gone down to Rome. Yes—left the old house where we were born, and all his labours, and gone down to Rome. I dread the worst—poor Bruno! He has been an unbrotherly soul to me, and harsh and hasty, and has been misguided always and mistaken. But before he went, he asked my pardon frankly, and you know when a man does that, bygones are bygones. I [Page 299] do not understand those hard hearts which never will forgive. Yes: I dread the worst. You see the poor lad Signa has fallen in evil courses, and been taken in the coils of a base woman, and Bruno hears of it, and will go see for himself, and says that he will drag the boy from ruin though it cost bloodshed. I do dread the worst. Because, you see, youths are not lightly turned from their mad passions and Bruno is too quick of hand and heavy of wrath—it makes me very anxious. Oh, yes indeed, I know he has had little love for me, and been unjust to me, and done me harm; but when a man says that he repents—it may be weak, but I for one could not refuse my hand. And between brothers, too. Indeed, I loved him always, and the poor boy knew that.”
And Lippo sighed.
“What a heart of gold!” said the barber, looking after him as he went up the street.
“Aye, truly, tender as a woman when you take him the right way,” quoth the butcher.
“And a man of thrift: money soon jumps itself treble in his pocket,” said Toto the tinman.[Page 300]
“And a good son of the church,” said the parish priest, who was passing by; and the barber nodded solemnly and added:
“And never a shrewder brain under my razor, with all the polls I have shaved as clean as pumpkins—forty years and one last St. Michael—in the Lastra.”
Lippo went on to the sacristy of the MisericordiaMiserecordia (sic), where he had risen to be of good report, and one of the foremost capi di guardia, by dint of assiduous service in the black robes, and bearing to and fro hospital or graveyard his sick or lifeless fellow‐creatures; and being constantly present at mass and requiem.
There was a dead body lying upon the hills as far away as Mosciano—the body of a poor sister of the order, a peasant woman—and the bier and catafalque were going out to fetch her. One of the daily servitors, whose turn it was, had met with an accident to his foot in answering the summons: Lippo, with kindliest quickest willingness, took his place, and bade the man go home and rest, and he would himself pay his fine of absence.[Page 301]
Amidst blessings Lippo moved away under the black and dismal pall.
“A pure good Christian soul,” said the bystanders. “It will be hard for such a man if his wild brother make a shame and scandal for him down in Rome.”
From the Lastra to Mosciano is a long and toilsome way, winding up into the green hills and under the steep heights that are left as nature made them, and have the arbutus and the oak and the stone pines growing at free will in beautiful dells and on bold rocky knolls that lie high under the skies, nameless, and rarely seen of men. There is infinite loveliness in these lonely, wild, richly‐foliaged hill‐tops, with the great golden valley far below, and beyond on the other side the shining plains by the sea. The day was fair; the opposite mountains were silvered with snow; the fox and the wild hare ran across the solitary paths; but it was cold; the north wind blew, the ascent was steep, and the way seemed endless, lying along over the green chain of the high woods. The men, labouring under the weight of the bier, grew footsore and tired; when [Page 302] they brought the poor dead sister down, and laid her in the chapel to await her burial on the morrow, the long hours of the day were already gone—it was night.
Lippo wiped the sweat from his forehead as he laid away his cowl; he was aching in every limb, and his feet were cut and bruised, but he was well content. Those were the things which smelt sweet in the nostrils of his neighbours. To walk in a steam of good savour is, he knew, to walk soon or late to the goal of success.
“You are not strong enough to take such exertion; it was noble of you, but you overtask yourself,” said pretty Candida, the vintner’s wife, as he left the church; and she would have him in, and made him warm himself beside her stove, and brewed him some coffee, and praised him, and hoped with a sigh that Nita knew her own good fortune and his worth.
“Do not make me vain,” murmured Lippo, with a pathetic appeal in his soft lustrous eyes, “Do not make me vain—nor miserable.”
And he said it so sweetly, and his hand stole so gently into hers, and his eyes were so eloquent [Page 303] and so plaintive, that pretty Candida was ready to promise him coffee—or aught else—whenever he passed that way.
So Lippo went home, having done a good day’s work, and meeting the vintner within a few yards from the door, pressed him by the hand warmly, and said—was Candida well? he had not seen her for a week or more; and being praised a little farther onward by the parish priest, said—he had done nothing: oh no! Mosciano was a stretch, but what mattered a little fatigue when there was God’s labour to be done, and the saints’ pleasure? and then, with modest denial of any virtue in himself, took a few farther steps, and mounted to the upper chamber, where his wife was sitting and waiting for him with a scowl and loud upbraiding.
“Nay, dear,” said he, “do not be angered. Poor Tista hurt his ancle at the church, and so I took his turn in fetching a corpse down from the hills; that is all. From Mosciano—an endless way; a day’s work, and a hard one, for a mule. I thought I should have died. And not a bit or drop passing my mouth since noonday, and it is [Page 304] nine of the clock. Dear, give me some wine—quick—I feel faint.”
And Nita, who loved him in a jealous, eager, tyrannous way, got him of the best, and waited on him, and roasted him some little birds upon a toast, and sorrowed over him.
For she was a fierce‐tongued, fierce‐eyed, jealous creature—but his dupe. The sharpest woman will be the merest fool of the man she loves, if he choose to fool her.
“There is a letter come for you,” said Nita, when the birds were eaten.
A letter was a rarity in any household of the Lastra.
Lippo broke it open, and slowly spoiled it out, syllable by syllable.
“Heaven is good to us,” he said softly, and laid it down by the brass lamp.
“What is in it?” asked his wife, watching his face breathlessly.
“Dear—your aunt of most blessed memory is dead; God rest her soul! She died of a stricture of the stomach, all in a moment. Would I had been there! She leaves us all she had; [Page 305] it seems she saved much; her cottage at Assisi and twenty thousand francs in scrip; all to us—to me—without reserve.”
Nita screamed aloud, with her black eyes all kindling with ferocious joy, and flung her brown arms about his neck and kissed him.
“Oh Lippo! oh Lippino! How clever you are! To have thought of taking the silly old soul those conserves and cough potions just in the nick of time! How clever!—I never will say you nay!”
Lippo returned her caress, thinking the lips of Candida were softer. His face grew very grave, with a pensive reproach upon it.
“Oh, my love, your words are unbecoming. You know full well I had no thought of after gain in paying that poor soul the deference due to age. You know it pains me now to be in friendship with all our relatives—and she so old too—it was only duty, Nita; believe me. dear, when we do right, heaven goes with us. I am thankful, of course, that so much more is added to us to keep you and the children in good com‐ [Page 306] fort; but I would sooner far that the kind old creature were living and enjoying life, than gain this greater prosperity by her death; and so, I know, would you, though your quick tongue outruns your heart and does belie it.”
Nita suddenly drew back, and made unseen a grimace behind her husband’s handsome head. She began to feel he was her master. She began to realize her own clumsy inferiority to this delicate fine workmanship of his.
“Anyhow, the cough syrup has brought good measure back” she muttered; her eyes still aglow.
“My journey to Rome, in my boy’s interests, has prospered, thanks to heaven,” said Lippo with calm serious grace; and went and read the notary’s letter to old Baldo.
“You will be a warm man, Lippo,” chuckled the cobbler, who had grown very infirm and kept his bed; “a warm man. You will have all I have too, ere long.”
“May it be very long!” said Lippo, and said it with such earnest graceful tenderness that the old man, though he had known him tell lies [Page 307] morning, noon, and night for five‐and‐twenty years, was touched, and almost thought that Lippo said the truth and meant it.
“Once,” said Baldo, “I did wish that my girl had taken your mad brother. But now I know that she chose aright. Yes—you are a man to prosper, Lippo.”
“All things are with God,” said Lippo; and tired though he was, sat down by the bed and spelt out aloud to the old man, who was drawing near his end, and liked to be well with heaven, one of the seven psalms of penitence.
The window‐shutter was not closed; a pretty woman, leaning in the opposite casement, could see, and a canon, who dwelt on the other side of the thin wall, could hear him.
16. CHAPTER XVI.
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 [Page 309] 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.[Page 310]
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.[Page 311]
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:[Page 312]
“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 [Page 313] 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.[Page 314]
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‐ [Page 315] 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 [Page 316] 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 [Page 317] 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‐ [Page 318] 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 [Page 319] 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.
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.[Page 320]
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.[Page 321]
“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?”[Page 322]
“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, [Page 323] 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 [Page 324] 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 [Page 325] 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 [Page 326] 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 [Page 327] 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 [Page 328] 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 [Page 329] 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 [Page 330] 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 [Page 331] 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 mouthmouths (sic).
“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. [Page 332] 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 [Page 333] 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.[Page 334]
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.[Page 335]
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.
17. CHAPTER XVII.
A Great bell clanging within the iron gates jarred on the silence.
He looked up; there was a man there by his side without who rang thus.
A voice answered the stranger’s demand through a grated wicket. Was she within? No; she was not within.
Bruno opened his lips to say that they lied; but kept back the words unuttered: the other was naught to him.
“I raised her from the very dust and have to ring at her gates like a beggar,” the stranger muttered, with tones too low for Bruno’s ear to hear them; then he turned and went away unwillingly. The moon fell full upon him. He [Page 337] saw the motionless dark figure of the peasant leaning by the wall. He looked and spoke:
“Is it you who dread Argol? What do you do here?”
“What do you?” said Bruno; his mouth scarcely unclosed, his whole heart and soul were full of frozen pain; his hand was against every man’s; he would have struck a child dead, or have spat upon the cross. What use were man or God? Where was their justice?
He looked at the stranger sullenly; who rang at her gates must be her friend—his foe.
The moon had risen fully, and shone with that pure and dreamful light which takes two thousand years of age away from Rome; the moonlight in which they say the dead gods rise and walk—weeping.
The face of the man was turned to him in it; a fair proud face, with something arrogant and something gentle, and the eyes of a poet and the lips of a cynic.
Bruno stared on him, wondering, doubting, remembering; then ground his teeth as a mastiff [Page 338] would at sight of what he loathed, and sprang erect.
“Wait! I know you,” he said, slowly; “You are the painter—Istriel.”
“Yes,” said the other, with a careless smile, as of one whose name meant homage. He was known so well by princes and by people. It seemed nothing strange.
“I meant to look for you. Wait there,” said Bruno. “Oh! I went and read your face, line by line, in the city where you have painted it; I meant to deal with you one day—and, yet, yonder, it was so dark there; you escaped me. Oh, I know you now.”
He spoke savagely, with his teeth set, still staring upon Istriel; startled, the other looked and kept his ground; he was a bold man, and knew that in his life he had sown enemies broadcast. This might be one of them.
“So you come to ring at her gates?” said Bruno. “When you shared her with all the world, were you not sick of her? You great men are less squeamish than we peasants are. When we throw the rotten fruit away, we have [Page 339] done with it. Do you know what Sandro said when she came to the birth? ‘Such a white child—so white‐God sendsend send (sic) her a white soul too.’ That is what he said, and he died looking at the little white plaster Christ on the wall, and saying, ‘I had a white child too; has the Holy Mother got her safe? Shall I see her the other side of the sun?’ That is what he died saying—”
“I do not understand,” said Istriel.
Bruno laughed aloud.
“No, no doubt: why should you? You take the loveliest, vilest thing you own, and strip it bare and smile, and paint it so, and send it out to all the multitudes—that is genius. You go down to hell and bring up a curse from it, and throw it out broadcast amongst the living people—that is genius. You have cursed my boy. Ten thousand others, too, for aught I know. But his was the gentlest, purest, sweetest soul that lived, and came so fresh from heaven, that he brought all heaven’s music with him in his ear and in his mouth, and was for ever hearing it and making others hear it. I have seen fierce men fighting [Page 340] cease and grow quiet, only because the child passed—singing. Look you, the lizards would come from their holes and the sheep and the goats stand listening round him, and the snakes lie still and quiet, in the sun there on the hills, because he piped upon his little lute—the broken lute I gave him. He never hurt a living thing. When he was a young child, he would take scorpions in his hand and say that he was sorry for them, because they hated men and had no one to love them—that was my boy. It is of no use telling you; how should you know, how should any one know, as I do? God sent him on to earth, I think, just to show what a human thing can be—how beautiful—when it has no greed and no vile thought. I laboured for the land and got it, and then I lost that, and all was to begin over again; and I could bear it—somehow—because he was safe, and things went well with him, and he had his heart’s desire; and when he came home to me, though the world had got him, it had not hurt him—not one whit, nor did he forget nor cease to care. But after he saw the accursed picture, then it was all over. There are women [Page 341] that have little white souls like doves, and when they enter the heart of a man, it is with him as if the Holy Spirit were there, and they nestle in him, and keep him from evil; but there are others;—your picture was accursed, I say. It bewitched him. It poured fire into him; the fire that consumes the bones and the nerves and the brain. When a boy or a man loves a woman that is vile, he kisses corruption on the mouth.”
“That is true,” said. the other; “but what have I done to you that you should upbraid me thus?”
He did not understand in any way the fierce onslaught and the confused meanings of the unknown man who fronted and arraigned him in the moonlight; but the rough eloquence of it fascinated him, and the courage and very rudeness of it and passionate pathos moved him to know more.
“You are a great man, that I hear,’” answered Bruno, “and you spend your strength painting lewd women. I do not know. I suppose it seems good to you. For me, it looks a poor pastime. Those men of old that coloured our [Page 342] walls—they saw God and the saints, and the great deeds that were done when men were giants; so they painted them. You paint what you see—I suppose. Is that what it is to have talents? to make dancing wantons live unperishing and drive innocent souls mad with sick passions? I praise heaven that I am a peasant and a fool. When you come to die, will it be well with you? to see these women for ever about your bed, and think of the young lives you have burned up with the teachings of wicked desire? If my right hand could create such things as that Innocence of yours, I would cut my hand off rather than leave it its cunning.”
“You are an ascetic?” said Istriel, with a smile. He was surprised at the fierce earnestness of this peasant, and was of that temper which will quarrel with nothing which is new to it and diverts it.
“I do not know what you mean,” said Bruno. “I am a man, and have been a bad man. At least, they have always said so. But I would slay myself before I would pander to the vileness of the world as you do. God gives you that gift [Page 343] of yours, to make the likeness of his living things, and give them more beauty than any real life has. And what do you do with it? Make shameless women glow like the fire, and the rose, and the jewels of the kings; and drive pure souls to hell with longing for them. What are you better than a pander and a tempter? You might make men see heaven, and you will not. You are like a jewel in a toad’s head. Has all your learning taught you no greater thing? is there nothing on all the broad earth but a naked wanton? For me, I have been a fool and a sinner with many a living woman in my time: that is the folly of all men; there is nature in that, and good may come out of its evil; but to set a vile creature up on high, and colour every hue of her, and draw every line, and set her up in the midst of the people, and seem to say to them, ‘There is nothing in all the world to worship but only a beautiful body, with a foul cancer hid in it;’ since to do that is what they call genius, I praise Fate that made me unlettered and unlearned, and sent me to dwell with my beasts at the plough.”
The painter Istriel looked at him with greater [Page 344] intentness: the rough eloquence stirred a certain shame in him; he knew that in it there was a grain of truth; in his own youth he had had pure aspirations and spiritual aims, and he had descended to delight and stimulate with the matchless grace of his colour, and the vital power of his hand, the sated materialism of his age.
He recognised in the passionate imperfect words of the man before him the temper which had made the men of the Middle Ages hurl their marble bacchanals and painted syrens into the flames at Savonarola’s word.
He was less offended than aroused.
“What has any one of my pictures done to you?” he asked. “Men like you feel no impersonal pain; what is your personal wrong at my hand?”
Bruno’s eyes glanced at him with a deep mute scorn.
“I do not know what you mean. Your wantons never hurt me. Only I would hew the wood you paint them into a million pieces, and thrust them in the nearest kiln to burn to ashes—if I could. From the time he saw that accursed thing [Page 345] all was altered with him. It got into him like wine—like poison. It made him drunk. Before—he lived in all the sweet sounds he heard; just as a bird does in the leaves and the light. He was always hearing beautiful things, and seeing them—we could not. He was so near the angels—my boy! But after he saw your accursed picture, it was the woman he saw—always the woman; she got between him and God. Do you not know? And so when she chose, she took him. It is like the plague. He looked with innocent eyes on your picture; when he looked away, he knew that we are all beasts. Yes, that is what your genius does for men. It is great; ah! so is the marsh fever, for it can kill a king if he pass by; your picture has killed my boy. When he found it living, he fell down before it. You see. He has no brain, or soul, or memory, or beauty left; all his dreams are dead; he only sees your wanton. Because you played with a wretched thing like that, must you make her a public glory to lure men’s souls? Why did you do it? Was there not the sea, and the sun, and the children, and the face of the mountains, and [Page 346] all the wide world for you to make a likeness of, and call all the nations to look? Was the great blue sky too narrow for you that you must needs go and make a devil‐star out of the mud of the sewer? Because the woman had no shame with you, must you crown her for that, and make others that look on her shameless? Your hand is accursed; your hand is accursed, I say. Were I lord and king, I would have it struck off in the sight of all the people. Look—the wanton you made takes my boy from me; from the world, from his art, from his God!”
He paused abruptly; he had spoken with broken impetuous passion; the long‐locked gates of his silence once burst asunder, all his heart rushed forth in his words; he smote wildly like a blind man in the midst of foes.
Istriel listened; the wrath that rose in him was daunted by a vague trouble, a restless uncertain shame.
“Whom do you speak of?” he said, with a wonder that held his wrath in check. “Your boy I is it possible that you mean the musician that they call Signa?”[Page 347]
Bruno made a gesture of assent.
Istriel was silent. In his soul he hated the young lover of his Innocence; the beautiful boy who had youth, who had fame, who had her.
“What have I to do with that?” he said, bitterly. “She takes a whim for him; a fancy of a month; he thinks it heaven and eternity. She has ruined him. His genius is burned up; his youth is dead; he will do nothing more of any worth. Women like her are like the Indian drugs, that sleep and kill. How is that any fault of mine? He could see the thing she was. If he will fling his soul away upon a creature lighter than thistle‐down, viler than a rattlesnake’s poison, poorer and quicker to pass than the breath of a gnat —whose blame is that except his own? There was a sculptor once, you know, that fell to lascivious worship of the marble image he had made; well,—poets are not even so far wise as that. They make an image out of the gossamer rainbow stuff of their own dreams, and then curse heaven and earth because it dissolves to empty air in their fond arms—whose blame is that? The fools are made so—”[Page 348]
He spoke with fierce curt scorn; he too had loved this worthless loveliness that he had christened Innocence.
“It is as bad as that with him?” muttered Bruno. “It is true then all they say?”
“Most true. All Rome can read it. Her fancy is done; and now his hell has come. It is always so. But what can it be to you? What is he to you?” he said, abruptly.
Bruno smiled; a smile of the pale passion which is bitter as death, and deep as the bottomless sea.
“I have given him all my life,” he said, simply. “All my life. And you and your wanton have destroyed him.”
“He is your son?” said Istriel.
“No. They all thought so, but they were wrong. He was Pippa’s son,” said Bruno, whose mind was clouded with the lores and fury of his pain, and who at all times had the peasant’s optimismopticism (sic), and believed that every one must know, without need of explanation, who he was, and what he meant, and why he spoke.[Page 349]
“Pippa!” echoed Istriel. His memories were wakened by the name, and went back to the days of his youth, when he had gone through the fields at evening, when the purple beanflower was in bloom.
“What is your name then?” he asked, with a changed sound in his voice, and with his fair cheek paler.
“I am Bruno Marcillo; I come from the hills above the Lastra a Signa.”
Istriel rose, and looked at him; he had not remembered dead Pippa for many a year. All in a moment he did remember: the long light days, the little grey‐walled town, the meetings in the vine‐hung paths, when sunset burned the skies; the girl with the pearls on her round brown throat, the moonlit nights, with the strings of the guitar throbbing, and the hearts of the lovers leaping; the sweet, eager, thoughtless passion that swayed them one to another, as two flowers are blown together in the mild soft winds of summer; he remembered it all now.
And he had forgotten so long; forgotten so utterly; save now and then, when in some great [Page 350] man’s house he had chanted to see some painting done in his youth, and sold then for a few gold coins, of a tender tempestuous face, half smiling and half sobbing, full of storm and sunshine, both in one; and, then at such times had thought “Poor little fool! she loved me too well;—it is the worst fault a woman has.”
Some regret he had felt, and some remorse when he had found the garret empty, and had lost Pippa from sight in the great sea of chance; but she had wearied him, importuned him, clung to him; she had had the worst fault, she had loved him too much. He had been young and poor, and very ambitious; he had been soon reconciled; he had soon learned to think that it was a burden best fallen from his shoulders. No doubt she had suffered; but there was no help for that—someone always suffered when these ties were broken—so he had said to himself. And then there had come success and fame, and the pleasure of the world and the triumphs of art, and Pippa had dropped from his thoughts as dead blossoms from a bough; and he had loved so many other women, that he could not have counted them; [Page 351] and the memory of that boy and girl romance in the green hill country of the old Etruscan land had died away from him like a song long mute.
Now, all at once, Pippa’s hand seemed to touch him—Pippa’s voice seemed to rouse him—Pippa’s eyes seemed to look at him.
This was Bruno, then?—the great, dark, elder brother, whom she had feared, and had often pointed out to him in the fading evening light from afar on the hillsides, and had begged him never to meet, lest there should be feud about her and bloodshed.
This was Bruno.
All in a moment the past leaped up to him, and grew fresh as yesterday.
This was Bruno—and what, then, was the boy?
He mastered the horror and the emotion which possessed him; but his mouth was dry, and his voice was unsteady, as he asked,
“She was your sister—Pippa?”
“Is she dead, then?”
“When did she die?”
“On the night of the flood, in the dark, we found her dead, Lippo and I. The child was at her breast. She had fallen from the edge of the road. She could tell us nothing. What is it to you? Why do you want to know?”
Istriel was silent a moment—a shiver as of some great cold went over him. Then he spoke suddenly,
“Because I was her lover. I took her from your country. That lad, if he be hers, is mine. She loved me too well to be faithless. There are women so.”
Bruno stared at him stupidly. The sense of what he heard was long before it reached him, or brought perception of its truth. Then all at once he understood.
“It will kill him!” he muttered, at last; “it will kill him! Do you not see?”
With a shudder, Istriel looked him slowly in the face.
Remembering the boy, their mutual thoughts dulled passion, numbed rage, and struck them mute.[Page 353]
Bruno’s hand, raised to strike the lover of dead Pippa, fell to his side nerveless and strengthless as a reed that is plucked upward by the roots.
18. CHAPTER XVIII.
“Let me think—let me breathe!” said Bruno, and he staggered farther out into the darkness, gasping for air.
The horror of an inevitable and irrevocable destiny closed in on him like a cage of iron.
There are hours in the lives of men when the old Greek sense of being but the sport of an inexorable Fate, from which there is no possible escape, sweeps away all hope and power of self‐help, and strikes all courage blinded to the dust.
What could he do?
The powers of heaven and hell were alike against him‐so he thought.
He was no god to struggle with this ghastly curse of risen years—these poison‐mists of perished passions.[Page 355]
It was no fault of his.
His hands were innocent—his soul was free of guilt; yet he suffered as the guilty do not. It is often so.
There was a sound as of many waters in his ears; the white moon and the curled palm leaves went round and round; the great stones seemed to heave beneath his feet.
He saw the face of the man before him as in a mist—blood‐red.
“Get you gone,” he muttered, “get you gone. You have no share with him. For you, he would have drowned, like any lamb that the flood took. He is mine—mine—mine. My hands worked for him; my bread fed him; my roof sheltered him. He was naught to you. You have lived your life and never thought. He is naught to you; he is mine. Get you gone!”
And he struck at the air—blindly.
The other shrank away before that great just passion—shrank, palsied and awed, in all his proud vain manhood, as though old age had seized him. He had dropped the serpent’s tooth of a careless love by the wayside, and thought [Page 356] no more; and now an armed host sprang on him.
“But—to save him?” he murmured, and was still.
Bruno stood erect, and in the changing shadows his form seemed to tower and dilate, and grow to giant’s stature.
“Leave him to me!” he cried; and his voice rolled like thunder down the deserted ruined ways of Rome. “He is mine; he is mine! My soul for his—that I have said—always—always—while you feasted and were famous, and kissed your wantons, and took no thought. Get you gone; get you gone. You gave him your life; but I gave him my soul.”
The other shrank back into the shadows.
Bruno stood silent, with his face to the stars.
“Is there a God, there?” he cried to them. “Is there a God, that he lets the innocent suffer for the guilty?”
The serene star‐covered heavens seemed chill as any vault of ice. What cared they for his pain!
It was no blasphemy in him that cried thus, and thus doubted; it was faith in its death [Page 357] agony; the faith of Peter’s “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
He was alone in the pale night.
The lover of dead Pippa, who had never feared anything in life, feared him.
“Is it all of no use?” muttered Bruno to the silence; and silence answered him. Was it all of no use?—the long years of toil; the patient sacrifice; the unceasing resistance of selfish desire; the bitter winters; the burning summers; the effort; the anxiety; the prayers; the love?
Was it all of no use? Did neither men nor God care anything?
That unutterable and terrible loneliness which comes to all in their death‐hour, and comes to some in their full height of life, encompassed Bruno now.
It seemed to him as if he stood solitary amidst the wreck of the whole world.
He had tried to build up in safety the temple of this young life, so that every fair and pure thing might be garnered therein, and no foul spirits ever enter; he had been willing to cement [Page 358] its corner‐stone with his heart’s blood; and by the sweat of his labour, and by the pain of his perishing hopes, purchase a blessing upon it. And now it burned and crumbled before his sight, blasted with the lightning of a hideous passion. And he stood by, with bound hands.
“My soul for this,” he muttered. That he had said always; that he would give still; only it seemed to him that there was no way to force on fate such barter.
It is not given to any life to be the providence of another—so the old man had told him in the sacristy of the Lastra, and he found the truth now.
A great sickness came on him; a loathing of life and of the hopes with which he had cheated himself through these twenty long years of vain sacrifices.
He seemed to feel the long wet hair of dead Pippa, and the cold of her lifeless breasts. Was it an hour ago that they had found her by the old sea road, or was it twenty years?
He stood stunned and stupid in the silent ways of Rome.
A great darkness was over all his mind like the [Page 359] plague of that unending night which brooded over Egypt.
All the ferocity of his nature was scourged into its greatest strength; he was sensible of nothing except the sense that he was beaten in the one aim and purpose of his life.
Only—if by any chance he could still save the boy.
That one thought—companion with him, sleeping and waking, through so many joyless nights—stayed with him still.
It seemed to him that he would have strength to scale the very heights of heaven, and shake the very throne of God until He heard—to save the boy.
The night was far gone; the red of the day‐dawn began to glow, and the stars paled.
He did not know how time went; but he knew the look of the daybreak. When the skies looked so, through his grated windows at home, he rose and said a prayer, and went down and unbarred his doors, and led out his white beasts to the plough, or between the golden lines of the reaped corn; all that was over now.[Page 360]
The birds were waking on the old green hills and the crocus flowers unclosing; but he—
“I shall never see it again,” he thought, and his heart yearned to it, and the great hot slow tears of a man’s woe stole into his aching eyes and burned them. But he had no pity on himself.
He had freedom and health and strength and manhood, and he was still not old, and still might win the favour of women, and see his children laugh—if he went back to the old homestead, and the old safe ways of his fathers. And the very smell of the earth there was sweet to him as a virgin’s breath, and the mere toil of the ground had been dear to him by reason of the faithful love that he bore to his birthplace. But he had no pity on himself.
“My soul for his,” he had said; and he cleaved to his word and kept it.
In his day he had been savage to others. He was no less so to himself.
He had done all that he knew how to do. He had crushed out the natural evil of him, and denied the desires of the flesh, and changed [Page 361] his very nature to do good by Pippa’s son: and it had all been of no use; it had all been spent in vain, as drowning seamen’s cries for help are spent on angry winds and yawning waters. He had tried to follow God’s will and to drive the tempter from him, for the boy’s sake; and it had all been of no avail. Through the long score of years his vain sacrifices echoed dully by him as a dropt stone through the dark shaft of a well.
Perhaps it was not enough.
Perhaps it was needful that he should redeem the boy’s soul by the utter surrender and eternal ruin of his own—perhaps. After all it was a poor love which balanced cost; a meek, mean love which would not dare take guilt upon it for the thing it cherished.
To him crime was crime in naked utter blackness; without aught of those palliatives with which the cultured and philosophic temper can streak it smooth and paint its soft excuse, and trace it back to influence or insanity. To him sin was a mighty, hideous, hell‐born thing, which, being embraced, dragged him who kissed it on [Page 362] the mourn, downward and downward into bottomless pits of endless night and ceaseless torment. To him the depths of hell and heights of heaven were real as he had seen them in the visions of Orgagna.
Yet he was willing to say, “evil be thou my good,” if by such evil he could break the bonds of passion from the life of Pippa’s son.
He had in him the mighty fanaticism which has made at once the tyrants and the martyrs of the world.
“Leave him to me,” he had said, and then the strength and weakness, and ruthless heat, and utter self‐deliverance of his nature, leaped to their height, and nerved him with deadly passion.
“There is but one way,” he said to himself;—there was but one way to cut the cords of this hideous, tangled knot of destiny, and let free the boy to the old ways of innocence.
“He will curse me,” he thought; “I shall die—never looking on his face—never hearing his voice. But he will be freed—so. He will suffer—for a day—a year. But he will be [Page 363] spared the truth. And he is so young—he will be glad again before the summer comes.”
For a moment his courage failed him.
He could face the thought of an eternity of pain, and not turn pale, nor pause. But to die with the boy’s curse on him—that was harder.
“It is selfishness to pause,” he told himself. “He will loathe me always; but what matter—he will be saved; he will be innocent once more; he will hear his ‘beautiful things’ again; he will never know the truth; he will be at peace with himself, and forget before the summer comes. He never has loved me—not much. What does it matter—so that he is saved. When he sees his mother in heaven some day, then she will say to him—‘It was done for your sake.’ And I shall know that he sees then, as God sees. That will be enough.”
And he refused to have pity on himself; and hardened his heart, and faced the red of the breaking day with his resolve stronger and firmer in his soul, till he seemed to himself to be no more a man with nerves to wound and heart to [Page 364] suffer, but a thing of iron set to vengeance as a clock is wound to strike.
There was no other way, that was what he thought; no other way to turn the boy to innocence, and spare him ever any knowledge of the truth.
The same terrible sense of crime as duty which of old nerved the hands of Judith and of Jael, came on him now. In the great blindness that was upon him it seemed to him that to shrink from this act set to him, would be the feeblest cowardice. It seemed to him that all the forces of Satan were at war with him, and that not to strike them down and crush them out, would be to pander to and aid them, and shrink, a craven, from their path.
The passion which makes tyrannicides was in him now.
“I have lived righteously, and no good has come of it,” he said to himself. “If came can save him—crime shall be sweeter to me than all virtue.”
That was all he felt; dully, savagely, hopelessly, with that despair upon him which is irresponsible as madness.[Page 365]
He had given all his manhood to the boy, and surrendered all the hopes and ties and pleasures and tender follies which make the toil of manhood bearable, and soften creeping age of half its terrors—and one after another alien forces had arisen and taken the thing he had laboured for away from him.
His heart was hard. His blood was fire. Fate had been merciless and God been deaf. He grew merciless too, and stopped his ears to pity.
Where was there any in all this wide world? The fiend sent a creature on to earth with a wooing mouth and a white body, and she ate up youth and innocence, and all pure desires, and all high endeavours, and devoured souls as swine the garbage; and from heaven there was never any sign.
The young day grew wider and brighter and redder in the sky. Nightingales sang in the gardens on the other side of the high walls. The wind rose fragrant with the smell of wet grass‐ways and of the laden orange boughs. [Page 366] He noticed nothing. The time had gone by with him when any sight or sound had power on him. He only waited—waited silently—drawn back within the shadow of the walls.
With the full morning the bolts of the gates were drawn back, there came forth a young man with a face strange to him, and rich garments, and a smile of triumph on his mouth; a little later came a woman, with brass buckets on her shoulders going to fetch water from the fountain in the public square a street or two beyond.
He, waiting for such a moment’s favouring chance, went within. The fresh dark gardens were deserted. There was a stone terrace with two flights of steps; winged lions; and grim marble masks. He ascended the stairs, and pushed back some great doors which were unlatched within. They yielded to his hand. He entered the silent house.
Two or three servants, drowsy or drunken, lay about on the couches in the great vaulted entrance whose white and red marbles gleamed in the golden glory of the slanting sunrays.[Page 367]
One of them raised himself sleepily, and stopped him with a stupid smile.
“Where do you go?—what would you do?”
Bruno pushed him aside:
“I go to my work,” he answered, and passed onward. The other, muttering, dropped back again into his vinous rest.
Bruno went on. Long corridors, empty banqueting rooms, chambers rich with sculptures and with frescoes, deserted splendours where the flowers were fading, and the morning shining through the crevices of closed shutters, all followed one on another like the tombs of dead Etrurian kings. All the household slept, after the long, gay amorous vigil of the night. He traversed the silent places as a living man traverses the solitude of sepulchres. He had no knowledge where to find the thing he sought; but he went on without a pause; he had grasped Evil by the hand; it guides unerringly.
His bare feet smote the bare marble and trode on, inexorable as the tread of time. After many chambers—the vast, beautiful, painted chambers of Rome, lofty as temples, and cool as the deep [Page 368] sea—he saw a door closed, with garlands of roses coloured on its panels under the morning sunbeams.
He thrust his strength against it; it resisted a moment, then gave way and opened noiselessly; a fierce exultant joy leaped up in his heart like a sudden flame; he had found his goal.
Here no daylight came; a little lamp was burning, a Cupid swung it from a chain; there was deep colour in the shadows everywhere; the gloom of the place was filled with aromatic odours.
He paused neither for the loveliness nor the stillness of it; he went through its fragrant darkness with the same slow calm steps. As destiny comes to men to strike, unhasting but unresting, so he went to her.
He paused a moment and looked on her. Her bed was white as sea‐foam is, it rose and sunk like billows under her; her loosened hair half covered her; her arms were cast above her head; her limbs were lightly crossed; she was one of those women who are most beautiful in sleep; and her sleep was soft and smiling and profound [Page 369] in its repose, as when she had slumbered on the nest of hay by Palma’s side in the old hut at Giovoli.
In her disarray, in her abandonment, in her deep dreamless rest, she was like a white rose just ruffled with the dew and wind, and shutting all the summer in its breast.
He stood and looked on her.
In her nude beauty she was to him sexless; in her perfect loveliness she was to him loathsome.
She was no woman; but all the evil, all the wrong, all the injustice, and all the mockery of human life made manifest in the flesh in her.
He stood and looked on her; at her red closed mouth, at her fair curled limbs, at her soft breast that rose and fell with the even measures of her peaceful breath.
Then he leaned forward and drew his knife from his belt, and, stooping, stabbed her through the heart—again and again and again—driving each stroke farther home.
She quivered a moment, then was still; she passed from sleep to death.[Page 370]
He went out, no man staying him, or asking him anything, into the broad bright daylight of the outer air.
“It was for him,” he said in his thoughts, and a great serenity was with him as of some duty done.
Man would slay him, and God would bid him burn in hell for ever:—what matter?—the boy was saved.
He went on, erect, in the full sunshine. Justice was done.
A deep, fierce, exultant calm was on him. He would perish—body and soul—but the boy was saved.
In the streets there were many people, and the multitudes were silent and afraid, and there was a sound as of weeping among women, and the stir and the press grew greater at each step; and through the crowds there was brought out in the living light of the joyous day an open bier; met followed mourning as once they followed Raffaele.
“What is it?” he asked, and paused, for a great fear fell upon him.[Page 371]
A woman answered him.
“His wanton was faithless, look you—and last night alone he knew it. So he slew himself—why not? She had killed all his soul in him. When Love is dead, one’s body best dies too.”
They brought the bier through the weeping crowds.
The face was uncovered to the light. It was the face of Signa.
They had folded his hands on his breast, and his eyes were closed as in slumber.
Love had killed him.
Why not? It is the only mercy that Love ever has.
19. CHAPTER XIX.
In a warm cloudless morning, with the scent of wild flowers upon the wind, when the summer had drawn near, and the world was filled with life and light, they brought Bruno out into the public place of Rome to meet his death.
He was quite silent. He had been always silent.
When the sun smote his eyes, and the wind blew on his face, he shivered a little, that was all.
“It was all of no use,” he muttered. “It was all of no use.”
He mounted the scaffold with a firm step. He was unconscious what he did, but courage remained an instinct with him.[Page 373]
Priests could do naught for him. He repelled them. He had no remorse.
“I did what I could,” he said in his heart. “But it was all of no use—of no use.”
He looked a moment at the blue sky—at the fair sailing clouds—at the hills which rose between him and his old home—then he surrendered himself.
They bared his throat.
“Pray for your soul,” said some voice in his ear.
He looked straight upward at the sun.
“Let my soul burn for ever!” he said. “Save the boy’s.”
That was his prayer.
Then he bowed his head, and knelt.
The axe fell.
They flung his body in a ditch, and threw the quicklime on it, and the heavy earth.
That was the end.
The hills lie quiet and know no change; the winds wander amongst the white arbutus‐bells and shake the odours from the clustering herbs; the stone‐pines scent the storm; the plain out‐ [Page 374] spreads its golden glory to the morning light; the sweet chimes ring; the days glide on; the splendours of the sunsets burn across the sky, and make the mountains as the jewelled thrones of gods.
Signa, hoary and old, stands there unchanged; beholding the sun shine alike on the just and on the unjust.
Signa can count her age by many centuries. Before the Latins were, she knew Etruria; but many as be her memories, she remembers no other thing than this, there is no justice that she knows of anywhere. Signa is wise. She lets this world go by; and sleeps.