James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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sinking fast. The Signor Grimaldi had, thus far,


generously sustained his friend, who was less ex
pert than himself in the water, and he continued
to cheer him with a hope he did not feel himself,
nobly refusing to the last to separate their fortunes.

" How dost find thyself, old Melchior ?" he ask
ed. " Cheer thee, friend I think there is suc
cor at hand."

The water gurgled at the mouth of the baron,
who was near the gasp.

" 'Tis late bless thee, dearest Gaetano God
be with my child my Adelheid poor Adelheid !"

The utterance of this precious name, under a
father's agony of spirit, most probably saved his
life. The sinewy arm of Sigismund, directed by
the words, grasped his dress, and he felt at once
that a new and preserving power had interposed
between him and the caverns of the lake. It was
time, for the water had covered the face of the
failing baron, ere the muscular arm of the youth
came to perform its charitable office.

"Yield thee to the dog, Signore," said Sigis
mund, clearing his mouth of water to speak calm
ly, once assured of his own burthen; "trust to his
sagacity, and, God keep us in mind! all may
yet be well !"

The Signor Grimaldi retained sufficient presence
of mind to follow this advice, and it was probably
quite as fortunate that his friend had so far lost his
consciousness, as to become an unresisting burthen
in the hands of Sigismund.

"Nettuno ! gallant Nettuno !" swept past them
on the gale for the first time, the partial hushing of
the winds permitting the clear call of Maso to reach
so far. The sound directed the efforts of Sigis
mund, though the dog had swum steadily away
the moment he had the Genoese in his gripe, and
with a certainty of manner that showed he was at
no loss for a direction.


But Sigismund had taxed his powers too far.
He, who could have buffeted an ordinary sea for
hours, was now completely exhausted by the un
wonted exertions, the deadening influence of the
tempest, and the log-like weight of his burthen.
He would not desert the father of Adelheid, and
yet each fainting and useless stroke told him to
despair. The dog had already disappeared in the
darkness, and he was even uncertain again of the
true position of the bark. He prayed in agony for
a single glimpse of the rocking masts and yards,
or to catch one syllable of the cheering voice of
Maso. But in both his wishes were vain. In place
of the former, he had naught but the veiled misty
light, that had come on with the hurricane ; and,
instead of the latter, his ears were filled with the
washing of the waves and the roars of the gusts.
The blasts now descended to the surface of the
lake, and now went whirling and swelling upward,
in a way to lead the listener to fancy that the
viewless winds might, for once, be seen. For a
single painful instant, in one of those dishearten
ing moments of despair that will come over the
stoutest, his hand was about to relinquish its hold
of the baron, and to make the last natural struggle
for life ; but that fair and modest picture of maiden
loveliness and truth, which had so long haunted his
waking hours and adorned his night-dreams, inter
posed to prevent the act. After this brief and
fleeting weakness, the young man seemed endowed
with new energy. He swam stronger, and with
greater apparent advantage, than before.

" Nettuno gallant Nettuno !" again drove over
him, bringing with it the chilling certainty, that,
turned from his course by the rolling of the water,
he had thrown away these desperate efforts, by
taking a direction which led him from the bark.
While there was the smallest appearance of success,


no difficulties, of whatever magnitude, could entire
ly extinguish hope ; but when the dire conviction
that he had been actually aiding, instead of dimin
ishing, the danger, pressed upon Sigismund, he
abandoned his efforts. The most he endeavored
or hoped to achieve, was to keep his own head and
that of his companion above the fatal element,
while he answered the cry of Maso with a shout
of despair.

" Nettuno ! gallant Nettuno !" again flew past
on the gale.

This cry might have been an answer, or it might
merely be the Italian encouraging his dog to bear
on the body, with which it was already loaded.
Sigismund uttered a shout, which he felt must be
the last. He struggled desperately, but in vain :
the world and its allurements were vanishing from
his thoughts, when a dark line whirled over him,
and fell thrashing upon the very wave which cov
ered his face. An instinctive grasp caught it, and
the young soldier felt himself impelled ahead. He
had seized the rope which the mariner had not ceas
ed to throw, as the fisherman casts his line, and he
was at the side of the bark, before his confused
faculties enabled him to understand the means
employed for his rescue.

Maso took a hasty turn with the rope, and, stoop
ing forward, favored by a roll of the vessel, he
drew the Baron de Willading upon deck. Watch
ing his time, he repeated the experiment, always with
admirable coolness and dexterity, placing Sigis
mund also- in safety. The former was immediate
ly dragged senseless to the centre of the bark,
where he received those attentions that had just
been eagerly offered to the Signior Grimaldi, and
with the same happy results. But Sigismund
motioned all away from himself, knowing that
their cares were needed elsewhere. He staggered


forward a few paces, and then, yielding to a com
plete exhaustion of his power, he fell at full length
on the wet planks. He long lay panting, speech
less, and unable to move, with a sense of death on
his frame.

"Nettuno! gallant, gallant Nettuno !" shouted
the indefatigable Maso, still at his post on the gang
way, whence he cast his rope with unchanging
perseverance. The fitful winds, which had already
played so many fierce antics that eventful night,
sensibly lulled, and, giving one or two sighs, as if
regretting that they were about to be curbed again
by that almighty Master, from whose benevolent
hands they had so furtively escaped, as suddenly
ceased blowing. The yards creaked, swinging
loosely above the crowded deck, and the dull wash
ing of water filled the ear. To these diminished
sounds were to be added the barking of the dog,
who was still abroad in the darkness, and a strug
gling noise like the broken and smothered attempts
of human voices. Although the time appeared an
age to all who awaited the result, scarcely five
minutes had elapsed since the accident occurred
and the hurricane had reached them. There was
still hope, therefore, for those who yet remained
in the water. Maso felt the eagerness of one who
had already been successful beyond his hopes, and,
in his desire to catch some guiding signal, he leaned
forward, till the rolling lake washed into his face.

" Ha ! gallant gallant Nettuno !"

Men certainly spoke, and that near him. But
the sounds resembled words uttered beneath a
cover. The wind whistled, too, though but for a
moment, and then it seemed to sail upward into
the dark vault of the heavens. Nettuno barked
audibly, and his master answered with another
shout, for the sympathy of man in his kind is


" My brave, my noble Nettuno !"

The stillness was now imposing, and Maso
heard the dog growl. This ill-omened signal
was undeniably followed by smothered voices.
The latter became clearer, as if the mocking winds
were willing that a sad exhibition of human frailty
should be known, or, what is more probable, vio
lent passion had awakened stronger powers of
speech. This much the mariner understood.

" Loosen thy grasp, accursed Baptiste !"

" Wretch, loosen thine own !"

" Is God naught with thee ?"

" Why dost throttle so, infernal Nicklaus ?"

" Thou wilt die damned !"

" Thou chokest villain pardon ! pardon U'

He heard no more. The merciful elements in
terposed to drown the appalling strife. Once or
twice the dog howled, but the tempest came across
the Leman again in its might, as if the short pause
had been made merely to take breath. The winds
took a new direction ; and the bark, still held by
its anchors, swung wide off from its former posi
tion, tending in towards the mountains of Savoy.
During the first burst of this new blast, even Maso
was glad to crouch to the deck, for millions of in
finitely fine particles were lifted from the lake, and
driven on with the atmosphere with a violence to
take away his breath. The danger of being swept
before the furious tide of the driving element was
also an accident not impossible. When the lull
returned, no exertion of his faculties could catch a
single sound foreign to the proper character of
the scene, such as the plash of the water, and the
creaking of the long, swinging yards.

The mariner now felt a deep concern for his
dog He called to him until he grew hoarse, but
fruitlessly. The change of position, with the con
stant and varying drift of the vessel, had carried


them beyond the reach of the human voice. More
time was expended in summoning " Nettuno ! gal
lant Nettuno !" than had been consumed in the pas
sage of all the events which it has been necessary
to our object to relate so minutely, and always
with the same want of success. The mind of Maso
was pitched to a degree far above the opinions and
habits of those with whom his life brought him or
dinarily in contact, but as even fine gold will be
come tarnished by exposure to impure air, he had
not entirely escaped the habitual weaknesses of the
Italians of his class. When he found that no cry
could recall his faithful companion, he threw him
self upon the deck in a paroxysm of passion, tore
his hair, and wept audibly.

" Nettuno ! my brave, my faithful Nettuno !" he
said. "What are all these to me, without thee !
Thou alone lovedst me thou alone hast passed
with me through fair and foul through good and
evil, without change, or wish for another master!
When the pretended friend has been false, thou hast
remained faithful ! When others were sycophants,
thou wert never a flatterer !"

Struck with this singular exhibition of sorrow,
the good Augustine, who, until now, like all the
others, had been looking to his own safety, or em
ployed in restoring the exhausted, took advantage
of the favorable change in the weather, and ad
vanced with the language of consolation.

" Thou hast saved all our lives, bold mariner,"
he said ; " and there are those in the bark who
will know how to reward thy courage and skill.
Forget, then, thy dog, and indulge in a grateful
heart to Maria and the saints, that they have been
our friends and thine in this exceeding jeopardy."

"Father, I have eaten with the animal slept
with the animal fought, swum, and made merry
with him, and I could now drown with him ! What


are thy nobles and their gold to me, without my
dog? The gallant brute will die the death of de
spair, swimming about in search of the bark in the
midst of the darkness, until even one of his high
breed and courage must suffer his heart to burst."

"Christians have been called into the dread
presence, unconfessed and unshrived, to-night; and
we should bethink us of their souls, rather than in
dulge in this grief in behalf of one that, however
faithful, ends but an unreasoning and irresponsible

All this was thrown away upon Maso, who cross
ed himself habitually at the allusion to the drowned,
but who did not the less bewail the loss of his dog,
whom he seemed to love, like the affection that
David bore for Jonathan, with a love surpassing
that of women. Perceiving that his counsel was
useless, the good Augustine turned away, to kneel
and offer up his own orisons of gratitude, and to
bethink him of the dead.

" Nettuno ! povera, carissima bestia /" continued
Maso, " whither art thou swimming, in this infernal
quarrel between the air and water ? Would I were
with thee, dog ! No mortal shall ever share the love
I bore thee, povero Nettuno! I will never take
another to my heart, like thee !"

The outbreaking of Maso's grief was sudden,
and it was brief in its duration. In this respect
it might be likened to the hurricane that had just
passed. Excessive violence, in both cases, ap
peared to bring its own remedy, for the irregular
fitful gusts from the mountains had already ceased,
and were succeeded by a strong but steady gale
from the north ; and the sorrow of Maso soon
ended its characteristic plaints, to take a more
continued and even character.

During the whole of the foregoing scenes, the
common passengers had crouched to the deck,



partly in stupor, partly in superstitious dread, and,
much of the time, from a positive inability to move,
without incurring the risk of being driven from
the defenceless vessel into the lake. But, as the
wind diminished in force, and the motion of the
bark became more regular, they rallied their
senses, like men who had been in a trance, and
one by one they rose to their feet. About this time
Adelheid heard the sound of her father's voice,
blessing her care, and consoling her sorrow. The
north wind blew away the canopy of clouds, and
the stars shone upon the angry Leman, bringing
with them some such promise of divine aid as the
pillar of fire afforded to the Israelites in their pas
sage of the Red Sea. Such an evidence of return
ing peace brought renewed confidence. All in the
bark, passengers as well as crew, took courage at
the benignant signs, while Adelheid wept, in grati
tude and joy, over the gray hairs of her father.

Maso had now obtained complete command of
the Winkelried, as much by the necessity of the
case, as by the unrivalled skill and courage he had
manifested during the fearful minutes of their ex
treme jeopardy. No sooner did he succeed in stay
ing his own grief, than he called the people about
him, and issued his orders for the new measures
that had become necessary.

All who have ever been subject to their influ
ence know that there is nothing more uncertain
than the winds. Their fickleness has passed into
a proverb ; but their inconstancy, as well as their
power, from the fanning air to the destructive tor
nado, are to be traced to causes that are suffi
ciently clear, though hid in their nature from the
calculations of our forethought. The tempest of
the night was owing to the simple fact, that a con
densed and chilled column of the mountains had
pressed upon the heated substratum of the lake,


and the latter, after a long resistance, suddenly
finding vent for its escape, had been obliged to let
in the cataract from above. As in all extraordi
nary efforts, whether physical or moral, reaction
would seem to be a consequence of excessive ac
tion, the currents of air, pushed beyond their proper
limits, were now setting back again, like a tide on
its reflux. This cause produced the northern gale
that succeeded the hurricane.

The wind that carne from off the shores of Vaud
was steady and fresh. The barks of the Leman
are not constructed for beating to windward, and
it might even have been questioned, whether the
Winkelried would have borne her canvass against
so heavy a breeze. Maso, however, appeared to
understand himself thoroughly, and as he had ac
quired the influence which hardihood and skill are
sure to obtain over doubt and timidity in situations
of hazard, he was obeyed by all on board with
submission, if not with zeal. No more was heard
of the headsman or of his supposed agency in the
storm ; and, as he prudently kept himself in the
back-ground, so as not to endanger a revival of
the superstition of his enemies, he seemed entirely

The business of getting the anchors occupied a
considerable time, for Maso refused, now there
existed no necessity for the sacrifice, to permit a
yarn to be cut; but, released from this hold on the
water, the bark whirled aw r ay, and was soon dri
ving before the wind. The mariner was at the
helm, and, causing the head-sail to be loosened, he
steered directly for the rocks of Savoy. This
manoeuvre excited disagreeable suspicions in the
minds of several on board, for the lawless charac
ter of their pilot had been more than suspected in
the course of their short acquaintance, and the
coast towards which they were furiously rushing


was known to be iron-bound, and, in such a gale,
fatal to all who came rudely upon its rocks. Half-
an-hour removed their apprehensions. When near
enough to the mountains to feel their deadening
influence on the gale, the natural effect of the ed
dies, formed by their resistance to the currents, he
luffed-to and set his main-sail. Relieved by this
wise precaution, the Winkelried now wore her
canvass gallantly, and she dashed along the shore
of Savoy with a foaming beak, shooting past ra
vine, valley, glen, and hamlet, as if sailing in air.

In less than an hour, St. Gingoulph, or the vil
lage through which the dividing line between the
territories of Switzerland and those of the King
of Sardinia passes, was abeam, and the excellent
calculations of the sagacious Maso became still
more apparent. He had foreseen another shift of
wind, as the consequence of all this poise and coun
terpoise, and he was here met by the true breeze
of the night. The last current came out of the
gorge of the Valais, sullen, strong, and hoarse,
bringing him, however, fairly to windward of his
port. The Winkelried was cast in season, and,
when the gale struck her anew, her canvass drew
fairly, and she walked out from beneath the moun
tains into the broad lake, like a swan obeying its

The passage across the width of the Leman, in-
that horn of the crescent and in such a breeze, re
quired rather more than an hour. This time was
occupied among the common herd in self-felicita
tions, and in those vain boastings that distinguish
the vulgar who have escaped an imminent danger
without any particular merit of their own. Among
those whose spirits were better trained and more
rebuked, there were attentions to the sufferers and
deep thanksgivings with the touching intercourse
of the grateful and happy. The late scenes, and


the fearful fate of the patron and Nicholaus Wag
ner, cast a shade upon their joy, but all inwardly
felt that they had been snatched from the jaws of

Maso shaped his course by the beacon that still
blazed in the grate of old Roger de Blonay. With
his eye riveted on the luff of his sail, his hip bear
ing hard against the tiller, and a heart that relieved
itself, from time to time, with bitter sighs, he ruled
the bark like a presiding spirit.

At length the black mass of the cotes of Vaud
took more distinct and regular forms. Here and
there, a tower or a tree betrayed its outlines
against the sky, and then the objects on the mar
gin of the lake began to stand out in gloomy relief
from the land. Lights flared along the strand, and
cries reached them from the shore. A dark shape
less pile stood directly atwhart their watery path,
and, at the next moment, it took the aspect of a
ruined castle-like edifice. The canvass flapped
and was handed, the Winkelried rose and set more
slowly and with a gentler movement, and glided
into the little, secure, artificial haven of La Tour
de Peil. A forest of latine yards and low masts
lay before them, but, by giving the bark a rank
sheer, Maso brought her to her berth, by the side
of another lake craft, with a gentleness of collision
that, as the mariners have it, would not have bro
ken aii egg.

A hundred voices greeted the travellers; for
their appfbach had been seen and watched with
intense anxiety. Fifty eager Vevaisans poured
upon her deck, irf a noisy crowd, the instant it
was possible. Among others, a dark shaggy ob
ject bounded foremost. It leaped wildly forward,
and Maso found himself in the embraces of Net-
tuno. A little later, when delight and a more


tempered feeling permitted examination, a lock of
human hair was discovered entangled in the teeth
of the dog, and the following week the bodies of
Baptiste and the peasant of Berne were found,
still clenched in the desperate death-gripe, washed
upon the shores of Vaud.


The moon is up ; by Heaven a lovely eve I
Long streams of light o'er glancing waves expand ;
Now lads on shore may sigh and maids believe :
Such be our fate when we return to land !


THE approach of the Winkelried had been seen
from Vevey throughout the afternoon and evening.
The arrival of the Baron de Willading and his
daughter was expected by many in the town, the
rank and influence of the former in the great can
ton rendering him an object of interest to more
than those who felt affection for his person and
respect for his upright qualities. Roger de Blonay
had not been his only youthful friend, for the place
contained another, wfth whom he was intimate by
habit, if not from a community of those principles
which are the best cement of friendships.

The officer charged with the especial supervis
ion of the districts or circles, into which Berne
had caused its dependent territory of Vaud to be
divided, was termed a bailli, a title that our word
bailiff will scarcely render, except as it may strictly
mean a substitute for the exercise of authority that
is the property of another, but which, for the want
of a better term, we may be compelled occasion-


ally to use. The bailli, or bailiff, of Vevey was
Peter Hofmeister, a member of one of those fami-
lies of the biirgerschaft, or the municipal aristoc
racy of the canton, which found its institutions
venerable, just, and, and if one might judge from
their language, almost sacred, simply because it
had been in possession of certain exclusive privi
leges under their authority, that were not only com
fortable in their exercise but fecund in other world
ly advantages. This Peter Hofmeister was, in the
main, a hearty, well-meaning, and somewhat benev
olent person/but, living as he did under the secret
consciousness that all was not as it should be, he
pushed his opinions on the subject of vested inter
ests, and on the stability of temporal matters, a
little into extremes, pretty much on the same prin
ciple as that on which the engineer expends the
largest portion of his art in fortifying the weakest
point of the citadel, taking care that there shall be
a constant flight of shot, great and small, across
the most accessible of its approaches. By one of
the exclusive ordinances of those times, in which
men w^ere glad to get relief from the violence and
rapacity of the baron and the satellite of the prince,
ordinances that it was the fashion of the day to
term liberty, the family of Hofmeister had come
into the exercise of a certain charge, or monopoly,
that, in truth, had always constituted its wealth
and importance, but of which it was accustomed
to speak as forming its principal claim to the grati
tude of the public, for duties that had been per
formed not only so well, but for so long a period,
by an unbroken su<icession of patriots descended
from the same stock. They who judged of the
value attached to the possession of this charge, by
the animation with which all attempts to relieve
them of the burthen were repelled, must have been
in error; for, to hear their friends descant on the


difficulties of the duties, of the utter impossibility
that they should be properly discharged by any
family that had not been in their exercise just one
hundred and seventy-two years and a half, the pre
cise period of the hard servitude of the Hofmeis-
ters, and the rare merit of their self-devotion to
the common good, it would seem that they were
so many modern Curtii, anxious to leap into the
chasm of uncertain and endless toil, to save the
Republic from the ignorance and peculations of
certain interested and selfish knaves, who wished
to enjoy the same high trusts, for a motive so un
worthy as that of their own particular advantage.
This subject apart, however, and with a strong
reservation in favor of the supremacy of Berne,
on whom his importance depended, a better or a
more philanthropic man than Peter Hofmeister
would not have been easily found. He was a hear
ty laugher, a hard drinker, a common and peculiar
failing of the age, a great respecter of the law, as
was meet in one so situated, and a bachelor of
sixty-eight, a time of life that, by referring his edu

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 10 of 22)