James Fenimore Cooper.

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The Headsman:

or, The Abbaye des Vignerons.

A Tale

By J. Fenimore Cooper.

"How oft the sight of means to do ill deeds
Makes deeds ill done."

Complete in One Volume.



Early in October 1832, a travelling-carriage stopped on the summit of that
long descent where the road pitches from the elevated plain of Moudon in
Switzerland to the level of the lake of Geneva, immediately above the
little city of Vévey. The postilion had dismounted to chain a wheel, and
the halt enabled those he conducted to catch a glimpse of the lovely
scenery of that remarkable view.

The travellers were an American family, which had long been wandering
about Europe, and which was now destined it knew not whither, having just
traversed a thousand miles of Germany in its devious course. Four years
before, the same family had halted on the same spot, nearly on the same
day of the month of October, and for precisely the same object. It was
then journeying to Italy, and as its members hung over the view of the
Leman, with its accessories of Chillon, Châtelard, Blonay, Meillerie, the
peaks of Savoy, and the wild ranges of the Alps, they had felt regret that
the fairy scene was so soon to pass away. The case was now different, and
yielding to the charm of a nature so noble and yet so soft, within a few
hours, the carriage was in remise, a house was taken, the baggage
unpacked, and the household gods of the travellers were erected, for the
twentieth time, in a strange land.

Our American (for the family had its head) was familiar with the ocean,
and the sight of water awoke old and pleasant recollections. He was
hardly established in Vévey as a housekeeper, before he sought a boat.
Chance brought him to a certain Jean Descloux (we give the spelling at
hazard,) with whom he soon struck up a bargain, and they launched forth in
company upon the lake.

This casual meeting was the commencement of an agreeable and friendly
intercourse. Jean Descloux, besides being a very good boatman, was a
respectable philosopher in his way; possessing a tolerable stock of
general information. His knowledge of America, in particular, might be
deemed a little remarkable. He knew it was a continent, which lay west of
his own quarter of the world; that it had a place in it called New Vévey;
that all the whites who had gone there were not yet black, and that there
were plausible hopes it might one day be civilized. Finding Jean so
enlightened on a subject under which most of the eastern savans break
down, the American thought it well enough to prick him closely on other
matters. The worthy boatman turned out to be a man of singularly just
discrimination. He was a reasonably-good judge of the weather; had divers
marvels to relate concerning the doings of the lake; thought the city very
wrong for not making a port in the great square; always maintained that
the wine of St. Saphorin was very savory drinking for those who could get
no better; laughed at the idea of their being sufficient cordage in the
world to reach the bottom of the Genfer See; was of opinion that the trout
was a better fish than the fêrà; spoke with singular moderation of his
ancient masters, the bourgeoïsie of Berne, which, however, he always
affirmed kept singularly bad roads In Vaud, while those around its own
city were the best in Europe, and otherwise showed himself to be a
discreet and observant man. In short, honest Jean Descloux was a fair
sample of that homebred, upright common-sense which seems to form the
instinct of the mass, and which it is greatly the fashion to deride in
those circles in which mystification passes for profound thinking, bold
assumption for evidence, a simper for wit, particular personal advantages
for liberty, and in which it is deemed a mortal offence against good
manners to hint that Adam and Eve were the common parents of mankind.

"Monsieur has chosen a good time to visit Vévey," observed Jean Descloux,
one evening, that they were drifting in front of the town, the whole
scenery resembling a fairy picture rather than a portion of this
much-abused earth; "it blows sometimes at this end of the lake in a way to
frighten the gulls out of it. We shall see no more of the steam-boat after
the last of the month."

The American cast a glance at the mountain, drew upon his memory for
sundry squalls and gales which he had seen himself, and thought the
boatman's figure of speech less extravagant than it had at first seemed.

"If your lake craft were better constructed, they would make better
weather," he quietly observed.

Monsieur Descloux had no wish to quarrel with a customer who employed him
every evening, and who preferred floating with the current to being rowed
with a crooked oar. He manifested his prudence, therefore, by making a
reserved reply.

"No doubt, monsieur," he said, "that the people who live on the sea make
better vessels, and know how to sail them more skilfully. We had a proof
of that here at Vévey," (he pronounced the word like v-_vais_, agreeably
to the sounds of the French vowels,) "last summer, which you might like
to hear. An English gentleman - they say he was a captain in the
marine - had a vessel built at Nice, and dragged over the mountains to our
lake. He took a run across to Meillerie one fine morning, and no duck ever
skimmed along lighter or swifter! He was not a man to take advice from a
Swiss boatman, for he had crossed the line, and seen water spouts and
whales! Well, he was on his way back in the dark, and it came on to blow
here from off the mountains, and he stood on boldly towards our shore,
heaving the lead as he drew near the land, as if he had been beating into
Spithead in a fog," - Jean chuckled at the idea of sounding in the
Leman - "while he flew along like a bold mariner, as no doubt he was!"

"Landing, I suppose," said the American, "among the lumber in the great

"Monsieur is mistaken. He broke his boat's nose against that wall; and the
next day, a piece of her, big enough to make a thole-pin, was not to be
found. He might as well have sounded the heavens!"

"The lake has a bottom, notwithstanding?"

"Your pardon, monsieur. The lake has no bottom. The sea may have a bottom,
but we have no bottom here."

There was little use in disputing the point.

Monsieur Descloux then spoke of the revolutions he had seen. He remembered
the time when Vaud was a province of Berne. His observations on this
subject were rational, and were well seasoned with wholesome common sense.
His doctrine was simply this. "If one man rule, he will rule for his own
benefit, and that of his parasites; if a minority rule, we have many
masters instead of one," (honest Jean had got hold here of a cant saying
of the privileged, which he very ingeniously converted against
themselves,) "all of whom must be fed and served; and if the majority
rule, and ruled wrongfully, why the minimum of harm is done." He admitted,
that the people might be deceived to their own injury, but then, he did
not think it was quite as likely to happen, as that they should be
oppressed when they were governed without any agency of their own. On
these points, the American and the Vaudois were absolutely of the same

From politics the transition to poetry was natural, for a common
ingredient in both would seem to be fiction. On the subject of his
mountains, Monsieur Descloux was a thorough Swiss. He expatiated on their
grandeur, their storms, their height, and their glaciers, with eloquence.
The worthy boatman had some such opinions of the superiority of his own
country, as all are apt to form who have never seen any other. He dwelt on
the glories of an Abbaye des Vignerons, too, with the gusto of a Vévaisan,
and seemed to think it would be a high stroke of state policy, to get up a
new, _fête_ of this kind as speedily as possible. In short, the world and
its interests were pretty generally discussed between these two
philosophers during an intercourse that extended to a month.

Our American was not a man to let instruction of this nature easily escape
him. He lay hours at a time on the seats of Jean Descloux's boat, looking
up at the mountains, or watching some lazy sail on the lake, and
speculating on the wisdom of which he was so accidentally made the
repository. His view on one side was limited by the glacier of Mont Vélan,
a near neighbor of the celebrated col of St. Bernard; and on the other,
his eye could range to the smiling fields that surround Geneva. Within
this setting is contained one of the most magnificent pictures that Nature
ever drew, and he bethought him of the human actions, passions, and
interests of which it might have been the scene. By a connexion that was
natural enough to the situation, he imagined a fragment of life passed
between these grand limits, and the manner in which men could listen to
the never-wearied promptings of their impulses in the immediate presence
of the majesty of the Creator. He bethought him of the analogies that
exist between inanimate nature and our own wayward inequalities; of the
fearful admixture of good and evil of which we are composed; of the manner
in which the best betray their submission to the devils, and in which the
worst have gleams of that eternal principle of right, by which they have
been endowed by God; of those tempests which sometimes lie dormant in our
systems, like the slumbering lake in the calm, but which excited, equal
its fury when lashed by the winds; of the strength of prejudices; of the
worthlessness and changeable character of the most cherished of our
opinions, and of that strange, incomprehensible, and yet winning _mélange_
of contradictions, of fallacies, of truths, and of wrongs, which make up
the sum of our existence.

The following pages are the result of this dreaming. The reader is left to
his own intelligence for the moral.

A respectable English writer observed: - "All pages of human life are worth
reading; the wise instruct; the gay divert us; the imprudent teach us what
to shun; the absurd cure the spleen."

The Headsman

Chapter I.

Day glimmered and I went, a gentle breeze
Ruffling the Leman lake.


The year was in its fall, according to a poetical expression of our own,
and the morning bright, as the fairest and swiftest bark that navigated
the Leman lay at the quay of the ancient and historical town of Geneva,
ready to depart for the country of Vaud. This vessel was called the
Winkelried, in commemoration of Arnold of that name, who had so generously
sacrificed life and hopes to the good of his country, and who deservedly
ranks among the truest of those heroes of whom we have well-authenticated
legends. She had been launched at the commencement of the summer, and
still bore at the fore-top-mast-head a bunch of evergreens, profusely
ornamented with knots and streamers of riband, the offerings of the
patron's female friends, and the fancied gage of success. The use of
steam, and the presence of unemployed seamen of various nations, in this
idle season of the warlike, are slowly leading to innovations and
improvements in the navigation of the lakes of Italy and Switzerland, it
is true; but time, even at this hour, has done little towards changing the
habits and opinions of those who ply on these inland waters for a
subsistence. The Winkelried had the two low, diverging masts; the
attenuated and picturesquely-poised latine yards; the light, triangular
sails; the sweeping and projecting gangways; the receding and falling
stern; the high and peaked prow, with, in general, the classical and
quaint air of those vessels that are seen in the older paintings and
engravings. A gilded ball glittered on the summit of each mast, for no
canvass was set higher than the slender and well-balanced yards, and it
was above one of these that the wilted bush, with its gay appendages,
trembled and fluttered in a fresh western wind. The hull was worthy of so
much goodly apparel, being spacious, commodious, and, according to the
wants of the navigation, of approved mould. The freight, which was
sufficiently obvious, much the greatest part being piled on the ample
deck, consisted of what our own watermen would term an assorted cargo. It
was, however, chiefly composed of those foreign luxuries, as they were
then called, though use has now rendered them nearly indispensable to
domestic economy, which were consumed, in singular moderation, by the more
affluent of those who dwelt deeper among the mountains, and of the two
principal products of the dairy; the latter being destined to a market in
the less verdant countries of the south. To these must be added the
personal effects of an unusual number of passengers, which were stowed on
the top of the heavier part of the cargo, with an order and care that
their value would scarcely seem to require. The arrangement, however, was
necessary to the convenience and even to the security of the bark, having
been made by the patron with a view to posting each individual by his
particular wallet, in a manner to prevent confusion in the crowd, and to
leave the crew space and opportunity to discharge the necessary duties of
the navigation.

With a vessel stowed, sails ready to drop, the wind fair, and the day
drawing on apace, the patron of the Winkelried, who was also her owner,
felt a very natural wish to depart. But an unlooked-for obstacle had just
presented itself at the water-gate, where the officer charged with the
duty of looking into the characters of all who went and came was posted,
and around whom some fifty representatives of half as many nations were
now clustered in a clamorous throng, filling the air with a confusion of
tongues that had some probable affinity to the noises which deranged the
workmen of Babel. It appeared, by parts of sentences and broken
remonstrances, equally addressed to the patron, whose name was Baptiste,
and to the guardian of the Genevese laws, a rumor was rife among these
truculent travellers, that Balthazar, the headsman, or executioner, of the
powerful and aristocratical canton of Berne, was about to be smuggled into
their company by the cupidity of the former, contrary, not only to what
was due to the feelings and rights of men of more creditable callings,
but, as it was vehemently and plausibly insisted, to the very safety of
those who were about to trust their fortunes to the vicissitudes of the

Chance and the ingenuity of Baptiste had collected, on this occasion, as
party-colored and heterogeneous an assemblage of human passions,
interests, dialects, wishes, and opinions, as any admirer of diversity of
character could desire. There were several small traders, some returning
from adventures in Germany and France, and some bound southward, with
their scanty stock of wares; a few poor scholars, bent on a literary
pilgrimage to Rome; an artist or two, better provided with enthusiasm than
with either knowledge or taste, journeying with poetical longings towards
skies and tints of Italy; a _troupe_ of street jugglers, who had been
turning their Neapolitan buffoonery to account among the duller and less
sophisticated inhabitants of Swabia; divers lacqueys out of place; some
six or eight capitalists who lived on their wits, and a nameless herd of
that set which the French call bad "subjects;" a title that is just now,
oddly enough, disputed between the dregs of society and a class that would
fain become its exclusive leaders and lords.

These with some slight qualifications that it is not yet necessary to
particularise, composed that essential requisite of all fair
representation - the majority. Those who remained were of a different
caste. Near the noisy crowd of tossing heads and brandished arms, in and
around the gate, was a party containing the venerable and still fine
figure of a man in the travelling dress of one of superior condition, and
who did not need the testimony of the two or three liveried menials that
stood near his person, to give an assurance of his belonging to the more
fortunate of his fellow-creatures, as good and evil are usually estimated
in calculating the chances of life. On his arm leaned a female, so young,
and yet so lovely, as to cause regret in all who observed her fading
color, the sweet but melancholy smile that occasionally lighted her mild
and pleasing features, at some of the more marked exuberances of folly
among the crowd, and a form which, notwithstanding her lessened bloom, was
nearly perfect. If these symptoms of delicate health, did not prevent this
fair girl from being amused at the volubility and arguments of the
different orators, she oftener manifested apprehension at finding herself
the companion of creatures so untrained, so violent, so exacting, and so
grossly ignorant. A young man, wearing the roquelaure and other similar
appendages of a Swiss in foreign military service, a character to excite
neither observation nor comment in that age, stood at her elbow,
answering the questions that from time to time were addressed to him by
the others, in a manner to show he was an intimate acquaintance, though
there were signs about his travelling equipage to prove he was not exactly
of their ordinary society. Of all who were not immediately engaged in the
boisterous discussion at the gate, this young soldier, who was commonly
addressed by those near him as Monsieur Sigismund, was much the most
interested in its progress. Though of herculean frame, and evidently of
unusual physical force, he was singularly agitated. His cheek, which had
not yet lost the freshness due to the mountain air, would, at times,
become pale as that of the wilting flower near him; while at others, the
blood rushed across his brow in a torrent that seemed to threaten a
rupture of the starting vessels in which it so tumultuously flowed. Unless
addressed, however, he said nothing; his distress gradually subsiding,
until it was merely betrayed by the convulsive writhings of his fingers,
which unconsciously grasped the hilt of his sword.

The uproar had now continued for some time: throats were getting sore,
tongues clammy, voices hoarse, and words incoherent, when a sudden check
was given to the useless clamor by an incident quite in unison with the
disturbance itself. Two enormous dogs were in attendance hard by,
apparently awaiting the movements of their respective masters, who were
lost to view in the mass of heads and bodies that stopped the passage of
the gate. One of these animals was covered with a short, thick coating of
hair, whose prevailing color was a dingy yellow, but whose throat and
legs, with most of the inferior parts of the body, were of a dull white.
Nature, on the other hand, had given a dusky, brownish, shaggy dress to
his rival, though his general hue was relieved by a few shades of a more
decided black. As respects weight and force of body, the difference
between the brutes was not very obvious, though perhaps it slightly
inclined in favor of the former, who in length, if not in strength, of
limb, however, had more manifestly the advantage.

It would much exceed the intelligence we have brought to this task to
explain how far the instincts of the dogs sympathised in the savage
passions of the human beings around them, or whether they were conscious
that their masters had espoused opposite sides in the quarrel, and that it
became them, as faithful esquires, to tilt together by way of supporting
the honor of those they followed; but, after measuring each other for the
usual period with the eye, they came violently together, body to body, in
the manner of their species. The collision was fearful, and the struggle,
being between two creatures of so great size and strength, of the fiercest
kind. The roar resembled that of lions, effectually drowning the clamor of
human voices. Every tongue was mute, and each head was turned in the
direction of the combatants. The trembling girl recoiled with averted
face, while the young man stepped eagerly forward to protect her, for the
conflict was near the place they occupied; but powerful and active as was
his frame, he hesitated about mingling in an affray so ferocious. At this
critical moment, when it seemed that the furious brutes were on the point
of tearing each other in pieces, the crowd was pushed violently open, and
two men burst, side by side, out of the mass. One wore the black robes,
the conical, Asiatic-looking, tufted cap, and the white belt of an
Augustine monk, and the other had the attire of a man addicted to the
seas, without, however, being so decidedly maritime as to leave his
character a matter that was quite beyond dispute. The former was fair,
ruddy, with an oval, happy face, of which internal peace and good-will to
his fellows were the principal characteristics, while the latter had the
swarthy hue, bold lineaments, and glittering eye, of an Italian.

"Uberto!" said the monk reproachfully, affecting the sort of offended
manner that one would be apt to show to a more intelligent creature,
willing, but at the same time afraid, to trust his person nearer to the
furious conflict, "shame on thee, old Uberto! Hast forgotten thy
schooling - hast no respect for thine own good name?"

On the other hand, the Italian did not stop to expostulate; but throwing
himself with reckless hardihood on the dogs, by dint of kicks and blows,
of which much the heaviest portion fell on the follower of the Augustine,
he succeeded in separating the combatants.

"Ha, Nettuno!" he exclaimed, with the severity of one accustomed to
exercise a stern and absolute authority, so soon as this daring exploit
was achieved, and he had recovered a little of the breath lost in the
violent exertion - "what dost mean? Canst find no better amusement than
quarrelling with a dog of San Bernardo! Fie upon thee, foolish Nettuno! I
am ashamed of thee, dog: thou, that hast discreetly navigated so many
seas, to lose thy temper on a bit of fresh water!"

The dog, which was in truth no other than a noble animal of the well-known
Newfoundland breed, hung his head, and made signs of contrition, by
drawing nearer to his master with a tail that swept the ground, while his
late adversary quietly seated himself with a species of monastic dignity,
looking from the speaker to his foe, as if endeavoring to comprehend the
rebuke which his powerful and gallant antagonist took so meekly.

"Father," said the Italian, "our dogs are both too useful, in their
several ways, and both of too good character to be enemies. I know Ubarto
of old, for the paths of St. Bernard and I are no strangers, and, if
report does the animal no more than justice, he hath not been an idle cur
among the snows."

"He hath been the instrument of saving seven Christians from death."
answered the monk, beginning again to regard his mastiff with friendly
looks, for at first there had been keen reproach and severe displeasure in
his manner - "not to speak of the bodies that have been found by his
activity, after the vital spark had fled."

"As for the latter, father, we can count little more in favor of the dog
than a good intention. Valuing services on this scale, I might ere this
have been the holy father himself, or at least a cardinal; but seven lives
saved, for their owners to die quietly in their beds, and with opportunity
to make their peace with heaven, is no bad recommendation for a dog.
Nettuno, here, is every way worthy to be the friend of old Uberto, for
thirteen drowning men have I myself seen him draw from the greedy jaws of
sharks and other monsters of deep water. What dost thou say, father; shall
we make peace between the brutes?"

The Augustine expressed his readiness, as well as his desire, to aid in an
effort so laudable, and by dint of commands and persuasion, the dogs, who
were predisposed to peace from having had a mutual taste of the bitterness
of war, and who now felt for each other the respect which courage and
force are apt to create, were soon on the usual terms of animals of their
kind that have no particular grounds for contention.

The guardian of the city improved the calm produced by this little
incident, to regain a portion of his lost authority. Beating back the
crowd with his cane, he cleared a space around the gate into which but
one of the travellers could enter at a time, while he professed himself
not only ready but determined to proceed with his duty, without further
procrastination. Baptiste, the patron, who beheld the precious moments
wasting, and who, in the delay, foresaw a loss of wind, which, to one of

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe Headsman The Abbaye des Vignerons → online text (page 1 of 37)