James Fenimore Cooper.

The headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) online

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




ENTERED according to the act of congress, in the year 1833, by
CAREY, LEA, & BLANCHAUD, in the clerk's office of the district court
for the eastern district of Pennsylvania.


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 Vevey. 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 remarka
ble view.

The travellers were an America^ 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 journey
ing to Italy, and as its members hung over the view of
the Leman, with its accessories of Chillon, Chatelard,
Blonay, Meillerie, the peaks of Savoy, and the wild
ranges of the Alps, the^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 wfc 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 fami
liar with the ocean, and the sight of water awoke old


and pleasant recollections. He was hardly established
in Vevey 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

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
Vevey ; 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
suflBent cordage in the world to reach the bottom of the
Genfer See ; was of opinion that the trout was a better
fish than the fera ; spoke with singular moderation of
his ancient masters, the bourgeoisie 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 deem
ed 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 Vevey,"
observed Jean Descloux, one evening, that they were
drifting in front of the town, the whole scenery resem
bling 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 tne current to being rowed with
a crooked oar. He manifested his prudence, therefore,
by making a reserved reply. ^fe

" 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 Vevey," (he pronounced the word like \-vais, agreea
bly to the sounds of the French vowels,) " last summer,

A 2


which you might like to hear. An English gentleman
they say he was a captain in the marine had a ves
sel built at Nice, and dragged over the mountains to our
lake. He took a run across to Meillerie one fine morn
ing, 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 oft" 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 Spit-
head 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 square ?"

" 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

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,
prgpnce 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 mas
ters 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 abso
lutely of the same mind.

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 elo
quence. 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 Vevaisan, and seemed to think it would be a high
stroke of state policy, to get up a new fete of this kind as
speedily as possible. In short, the world and its interests
were pretty generally discussed between these two phi
losophers 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 accident
ally made the repository. His view on one side was
limited by the glacier of Mont Velan, a near neighbor of
the celebrated col of St. Bernard ; and on the other, his
eye could range to the smiling fields that surround Gene-


va. Within this setting is contained one of the most
magnificent pictures that Nature ever drew, and he be
thought 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 ad
mixture 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 en
dowed 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 worth-
lessness and changeable character of the most cherished
of our opinions, and of that strange, incomprehensible,
and yet winning melange of contradictions, of fallacies,
of truths, and of \vrongs, which make up the sum of our

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."



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 ]ay at the quay of the ancient and histori
cal 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 launch
ed at the commencement of the summer, and still
bore at the fore-top-mast-head a bunch of ever
greens, 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 ha
bits and opinions of those who ply on these inland
waters for a subsistence. The Winkelreid had the
two low, diverging masts ; the attenuated and pic-


turesquely-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 suffi
ciently 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 luxu
ries, as they were then called, though use has now
rendered them nearly indispensable to domestic
economy, which were consumed, in singular mod
eration, by the more affluent of those who dw r elt
deeper among the mountains, and of the two prin
cipal products of the dairy ; the latter being des
tined 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 arrange
ment, 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 ne
cessary duties of the navigation.

With a vessel stowed, sails ready to drop, the


wind fair, and the day drawing on apace, the
patieon of the Winkelried, who was also her owner,
felt a very natural wish to depart. But an unlook
ed-for obstacle had just presented itself at the
water-gate, where the officer charged with the
duty of looking into the characters of all w r ho 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 af
finity to the noises which deranged the workmen
of Babel. It appeared, by parts of sentences and bro
ken 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, con
trary, 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 for
tunes to the vicissitudes of the elements.

Chance and the ingenuity of Baptiste had col
lected, on this occasion, as party-colored and
heterogeneous an assemblage of human passions,
interests, dialects, wishes, and opinions, as any ad
mirer 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 thap 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 ex
elusive 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 dif
ferent 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 ob
servation 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 equi
page to prove he was not exactly of their ordinary
society. Of all who were not immediately en
gaged 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 oth
ers, 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, appa
rently 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 co
lor 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 turn
ed in the direction of the combatants. The trem
bling girl recoiled with averted face, while the
young man stepped eagerly forward to protect
her, for the conflict was near the place they occu
pied ; but powerful and active as was his frame,
he hesitated about mingling in an affray so fero
cious. 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 vio
lently 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, affect
ing 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 fol
lower 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 quar
relling 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 w r as 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 t.n 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 endeavor
ing 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 Uberto
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, begin
ning again to regard his mastiff with friendly looks,
for at first there had been keen reproach and se
vere 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 car
dinal ; 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 recom
mendation 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 a'nd 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 mu
tual taste of the bitterness of war, and who now

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