James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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her in respect, and served in some degree as a mild
and wise repellant, to counteract the attractions of
her gentleness and candor. In short, one cast un
expectedly in her society would not have been
slow to infer, and he would have decided correct
ly, that Adelheid de Willading was a girl of warm
and tender affections, of a playful but resrulated



fancy, of a firm and lofty sense of all her duties,
whether natural or merely the result of social ob
ligations, of melting pity> and yet of a habit and
quality to think and act for herself, in all those
cases in which it was fitting for a maiden of her
condition and years to assume such self-control.

It was now more than a year since Adelheid had
become fully sensible of the force of her attach
ment for Sigismund Steinbach, and during all that
time she had struggled hard to overcome a feeling
which she believed could lead to no happy result.
The declaration of the young man himself, a decla
ration that was extorted involuntarily and in a
moment of powerful passion, was accompanied by
an admission of its uselessness and folly, and it
first opened her eyes to the state of her own feel
ings. Though she had listened, as all of her sex will
listen, even when the passion is hopeless, to such
words coming from lips they love, it was with a
self-command that enabled her to retain her own
secret, and with a settled and pious resolution to
do that which she believed to be her duty to her
self, to her father, and to Sigismund. From that
hour she ceased to see him, unless under circum
stances when it would have drawn suspicion on her
motives to -refuse, and while she never appeared to
forget her heavy obligations to the youth, she firm
ly denied herself the pleasure of even mentioning
his name when it could be avoided. But of all
ungrateful and reluctant tasks, that of striving to
forget is the least likely to succeed. Adelheid was
sustained only by her sense of duty and the desire
not to disappoint her father's wishes, to which habit
and custom had given nearly the force of law with
maidens of her condition, though her reason and
judgment no less than her affections were both
strongly enlisted on the other side. Indeed, with
the single exception of the general unfitness of a


union between two of unequal stations, there was
nothing to discredit her choice, if that may be
termed choice which, after all, was more the result
of spontaneous feeling and secret sympathy than of
any other cause, unless it were a certain equivo
cal reserve, and a manifest uneasiness, whenever
allusion was made to the early history and to the
family of the soldier. This sensitiveness on the
part of Sigismund had been observed and com
mented on by others as well as by herself, and it
had been openly ascribed to the mortification of
one who had been thrown, by chance, into an in
timate association that was much superior to what
he was entitled to maintain by birth ; a weakness
but too common, and which few have strength of
mind to resist or sufficient pride to overcome.
The intuitive watchfulness of affection, however,
led Adelheid to a different conclusion; she saw
that he never affected to conceal, while with equal
good taste he abstained from obtrusive allusions to
the humble nature of his origin, but she also per
ceived that there were points of his previous his
tory on which he was acutely sensitive, and whjch
at first she feared must be attributed to the con
sciousness of acts that his clear perception of moral
truth condemned, and which he could wish forgot
ten. For some time Adelheid clung to this dis
covery as to a healthful and proper antidote to her
own traant inclinations, but native rectitude banish
ed a suspicion which had no sufficient ground, as
equally unworthy of them both. The effects of a
ceaseless mental struggle, and of the fruitlessness
of her efforts to overcome her tenderness in behalf
of Sigismund, have been described in the fading of
her bloom, in the painful solicitude of a counte
nance naturally so sweet, and in the settled mel
ancholy of her playful and mellow eye. These
were the real causes of the journey undertaken by


her father, and, in truth, of most of the other
events which we are about to describe.

The prospect of the future had undergone a
sudden change. The color, though more the ef
fect of excitement than of returning health for
the tide of life, when rudely checked, does not re
sume its currents at the first breath of happiness
again brightened her cheek and imparted brillian
cy to her looks, and smiles stole easily to those
lips which had long been growing pallid with anx
iety. She leaned forward from the balcony, and
never before had the air of her native mountains
seemed so balmy and healing. At that moment
the subject of her thoughts appeared on the ver
dant declivity, among the luxuriant nut-trees that
shade the natural lawn of Blonay. He saluted her
respectfully, and pointed to the glorious panorama
of the Leman, The heart of Adelheid beat vio
lently ; she struggled for an instant with her fears
and her pride, and then, for the first time in her
life, she made a signal that she wished him to join

Notwithstanding the important service that the
young soldier had rendered to the daughter of the
Baron de Wiilading, and the long intimacy which
had been its fruit, so great had been the reserve
she had hitherto maintained, by placing a constant
restraint on her inclinations, though the simple usa
ges of Switzerland permitted greater familiarity of
intercourse than was elsewhere accorded to maid
ens of rank, that Sigismund at first stood rooted to
the ground, for he could not imagine the waving
of the hand was meant for him. Adelheid saw
his embarrassment, and the signal was repeated.
The young man sprang up the acclivity with the
rapidity of the wind, and disappeared behind the
walls of the castle.

The barrier of reserve, so long and so success-


fully observed by Adelheid, was now passed, and
she felt as if a few short minutes must decide her
fate. The necessity of making a wide circuit in
order to enter the court still afforded a little time
for reflection, however, and this she endeavored to
improve by collecting her thoughts and recover
ing her self-possession.

When Sigismund entered the knights' hall, he
found the maiden still seated near the open window
of the balcony, pale and serious, but perfectly
cairn, and with such an expression of radiant hap
piness in her countenance as he had not seen reign
ing in those sweet lineaments for many painful
months. The first feeling was that of pleasure at
perceiving how well she bore the alarms and dan
gers of the past night. This pleasure he expressed,
with the frankness admitted by the habits of the

" Thou wilt not suffer, Adelheid, by the exposure
on the lake !" he said, studying her face until the
tell-tale blood stole to her very temples.

" Agitation of the mind is a good antidote to the
consequences of bodily exposure. So far from
suffering by what has passed, I feel stronger to-day
and better able to endure fatigue, than at any time
since we came through the gates of Willading.
This balmy air, to me, seems Italy, and I see no
necessity to journey farther in search of what they
said was necessary to my health, agreeable objects
and a generous sun."

" You will not cross the St. Bernard !" he ex
claimed in a tone of disappointment,

Adelheid smiled, and he felt encouraged, though
the smile was ambiguous. Notwithstanding the
really noble sincerity of the maiden's disposition,
and her earnest desire to. set his heart at ease, na
ture, or habit, or education, for we scarcely know


to which the weakness ought to be ascribed, tempt
ed her to avoid a direct explanation.

" Why need one desire aught that is more love
ly than this ?" she answered, evasively. " Here is
a warm air-, such a scene as Italy can scarcely
surpass, and a friendly roof. The experience of
the last twenty-four hours gives little encourage
ment for attempting the St. Bernard, notwithstand
ing the fair promises of hospitality and welcome
that have been so liberally held out by the good

" Thy eye contradicts thy tongue, Adelheid ; thou
art happy and well enough to use pleasantry to
day. For heaven's sake, do not neglect to profit
by this advantage, however, under a mistaken
opinion that Blonay is the well-sheltered Pisa.
When the winter shall arrive, thou wilt see that
these mountains are still the icy Alps, and the
winds will whistle through this crazy castle, as
they are wont to sing in the naked corridors of

" We have time before us, and can think of this.
Thou wilt proceed to Milan, no doubt, as soon as
the revels of Vevey are ended."

" The soldier has little choice but duty. My long
and frequent leaves of absence of late, leaves
that have been liberally granted to me on account
of important family-concerns, impose an addition
al obligation to be punctual, that I may not seern
forgetful of favors already enjoyed. Although we
all owe a heavy debt to nature, our voluntary engage
ments have ever seemed to me the most serious."

Adelheid listened with breathless attention.
Never before had he uttered the word family, in
reference to himself, in her presence. The allu
sion appeared to have created unpleasant recollec
tions in the mind of the young man himself, for
when he ceased to speak his countenance fell, and


he even appeared to be fast forgetting the presence
of his fair companion. The latter turned sensi
tively from a subject which she saw gave him
pain, and endeavored to call his thoughts to other
things. By an unforeseen fatality, the very expe
dient adopted hastened the explanation she would
now have given so much to postpone.

" My father has often extolled the site of the
Baron de Blonay's castle," said Adelheid, gazing
from the window, though all the fair objects of the
view floated unheeded before her eyes : " but, un
til now, I have always suspected that friendly feel
ing had a great influence on his descriptions."

" You did him injustice then," answered Sigis-
mund, advancing to the opening: "of all the an
cient holds of Switzerland, Blonay is perhaps enti
tled to the palm, for possessing the fairest site.
Regard yon treacherous lake, Adelheid ! Can we
fancy that sleeping mirror the same boiling caul
dron on which we were so lately tossed, helpless
and nearly hopeless ?"

" Hopeless, Sigismund, but for thee !"

" Thou forgett'st the daring Italian, without
whose coolness and skill we must indeed have ir
redeemably perished."

" And what would it be to me if the worthless
bark were saved, while my father and his friend
were abandoned to the frightful fate that befell the
patron and that unhappy peasant of Berne !"

The pulses of the young man beat high, for there
was a tenderness in the tones of Adelheid to which
he was unaccustomed, and which, indeed, he had
never before discovered in her voice.

" I will go seek this brave mariner," he said,
trembling lest his self-command should be again
lost by the seductions of such a communion : " it
is time he had more substantial proofs of our


" No, Sigismund," returned the maiden firmly,
and in a way to chain him to the spot, " thou must
not quit me yet. I have much to say much that
touches my future happiness, and, I am perhaps
weak enough to believe, thine."

Sigismund was bewildered, for the manner of
his companion, though the color went and came
. in sudden and bright flashes across her pure brows,
was miraculously calm and full of dignity. He
took the seat to which she silently pointed, and sat
motionless as if carved in stone, his faculties ab
sorbed in the single sense of hearing. Adelheid
saw that the crisis was arrived, and that retreat,
without an appearance of levity that her charac
ter and pride equally forbade, was impossible. The
inbred and perhaps the inherent feelings of her sex
would now have caused her again to avoid the ex
planation, at least as coming from herself, but that
she was sustained by a high and holy motive.

" Thou must find great delight, Sigismund, in
reflecting on thine own good acts to others. But
for thee Melchior de Willading would have long
since been childless ; and but for thee his daughter
would now be an orphan. The knowledge that
thou hast had the power and the will to succor
thy friends must be worth all other knowledge !"

" As connected with thee, Adelheid, it is," he
answered in a low voice : " I would not exchange
the secret happiness of having been of this use to
thee, and to those thou lovest, for the throne of the
powerful prince I serve. I have had my secret
wrested from me already, and it is vain attempting
to deny it, if I would. Thou knowest I love thee ;
and, in spite of myself, my heart cherishes the
weakness. I rather rejoice, than dread, to say,
that it will cherish it until it cease to feel. This
is more than I ever intended to repeat to thy mod
est ears, which ought not to be wounded by idle


declarations like these, but thou smilest Adel-
heid ! can thy gentle spirit mock at a hopeless
passion !"

" Why should my smile mean mockery ?"

" Adelheid ! nay this never can be. One of
my birth my ignoble, nameless origin, cannot
even intimate his wishes, with honor, to a lady
of thy name and expectations !"

" Sigismund, it can be. Thou hast not well cal
culated either the heart of Adelheid de Willading,
or the gratitude of her father."

The young man gazed earnestly at the face of
the maiden, which, now that she had disburthened
her soul of its most secret thought, reddened to
the temples, more however with excitement than
with shame, for she met his ardent look with the
mild confidence of innocence and affection. She
believed, and she had every reason so to believe,
that her words would give pleasure, and, with the
jealous watchfulness of true love, she would not
willingly let a single expression of happiness es
cape her. But, instead of the brightening eye,
and the sudden expression of joy that she expected,
the young man appeared overwhelmed with feelings
of a very opposite, and indeed of the most painful,
character. His breathing was difficult, his look
wandered, and his lips were convulsed. He passed
his hand across his brow, like a man in intense
agony, and a cold perspiration broke out, as by a
dreadful inward working of the spirit, upon. his
forehead and temples, in large visible drops.

" Adelheid dearest Adelheid thou knowest
not what thou sayest ! One like me can never
become thy husband."

" Sigismund ! why this distress ? Speak to me
ease thy mind by words. I swear to thee that
the consent of my father is accompanied on my


part by a willing heart. I love thee, Sigismund
wouldst thou have me can I say more ?"

The young man gazed at her incredulously, and
then, as thought became more clear, as one regards
a much-prized object that is hopelessly lost. He
shook his head mournfully, and buried his face in
his hands.

"Say no more, Adelheid for my sake for
thine own sake, say no more in mercy, be silent !
Thou never canst be mine No, no honor forbids
it ; in thee it would be madness, in me dishonor
we can never be united. What fatal weakness
has kept me near thee I have long dreaded this "

" Dreaded !"

" Nay, do not repeat my words, for I scarce
know what I say. Thou and thy father have
yielded, in a moment of vivid gratitude, to a gen
erous, a noble impulse but it is not for me to pro
fit by the accident that has enabled me to gain this
advantage. What would all of thy blood, all of
the republic say, Adelheid, were the noblest born,
the best endowed, the fairest, gentlest, best maiden
of the canton, to wed a nameless, houseless, soldier
of fortune, who has but his sword and some gifts
of nature to recommend him ? Thy excellent father
will surely think better of this, and we will speak
of it no more !"

" Were I to listen to the common feelings of my
sex, Sigismund, this reluctance to accept what
both my father and myself offer might cause me
to feign displeasure. But, between thee and me,
there shall be naught but holy truth. My father
has well weighed all these objections, and he has
generously decided to forget them. As for me,
placed in the scale against thy merits, they have
never weighed at all. If thou canst not become
noble in order that we may be equals, I shall find
more happiness in descending to thy level, than by


Jiving in heartless misery at the vain height where
I have been placed by accident."

" Blessed, ingenuous girl ! But what does it all
avail? Our marriage is impossible."

" If thou knowest of any obstacle that would
render it improper for a weak, but virtuous girl "

" Hold, Adelheid ! do not finish the sentence.
I am sufficiently humbled sufficiently debased
without this cruel suspicion."

" Then why is our union impossible when my
father not only consents, but wishes it may take

" Give me time for thought thou shalt know
all, Adelheid, sooner or later. Yes, this is, at the
least, due to thy noble frankness. Thou shouldst
in justice have known it long before."

Adelheid regarded him in speechless apprehen
sion, for the evident and violent physical struggles
of the young man too fearfully announced the
mental agony he endured. The color had fled
from her own face, in which the beauty of expres
sion now feigned undisputed mistress ; but it was
the expression of the mingled sentiments of won
der, dread, tenderness, and alarm. He saw that
his own sufferings were fast communicating them
selves to his companion, and, by a powerful effort,
he so far mastered his emotions as to regain a por
tion of his self-command.

" This explanation has been too heedlessly de
layed," he continued : " cost what it may, it shall
be no longer postponed. Thou wilt not accuse me
of cruelty, or of dishonest silence, but remember
the failing of human nature, and pity rather than
blame a weakness which may be the cause of as
much future sorrow to thyself, beloved Adelheid,
as it is now of bitter regret to me. I have never
concealed from thee that my birth is derived from
that class which, throughout Europe, is believed


to be of inferior rights to thine own ; on this head,
I am proud rather than humble, for the invidious
distinctions of usage have too often provoked
comparisons, and I have been in situations to know
that the mere accidents of descent bestow neither
personal excellence, superior courage, nor higher
intellect. Though human inventions may serve to
depress the less fortunate, God has given fixed lim
its to the means of men. He that would be greater
than his kind, and illustrious by unnatural expe
dients, must debase others to attain his end. By
different means than these there is no nobility, and
he who is unwilling to admit an inferiority which
exists only in idea can never be humbled by an
artifice so shallow. On the subject of mere birth,
as it is ordinarily estimated, whether it come from
pride, or philosophy, or the habit of commanding
as a soldier those who might be deemed my supe
riors as men, I have never been very sensitive.
Perhaps the heavier disgrace which crushes me
may have caused this want to appear lighter than
it otherwise might."

" Disgrace !" repeated Adelheid, in a voice that
was nearly choked. " The word is fearful, com
ing from one of thy regulated mind, and as applied
to himself."

" I cannot choose another. Disgrace it is by
the common consent of men by long and endu
ring opinion it would almost seem by the just
judgment of God. Dost thou not believe, Adel
heid, that there are certain races which are deem
ed accursed, to answer some great and unseen
end races on whom the holy blessings of Heaven
never descend, as they visit the meek and well-
deserving that come of other lines !"

" How can I believe this gross injustice, on the
part of a Power that is wise without bounds, and
forgiving to parental love?"


" Thy answer would be well, were this earth
the universe, or this state of being the last. But
he whose sight extends beyond the grave, who
fashions justice, and mercy, and goodness, on a
scale commensurate with his own attributes, and
not according to our limited means, is not to be
estimated by the narrow rules that we apply to
men. No, we must not measure the ordinances
of God Jby laws that are plausible in our own eyes.
Justice is a relative and not an abstract quality ;
and, until we understand the relations of the
Deity to ourselves as well as we understand our
own relations to the Deity, we reason in the

" I do not like to hear thee speak thus, Sigismund,
and, least of all, with a brow so clouded, and in
a voice so hollow !"

" I will tell my tale more cheerfully, dearest. I
have no right to make thee the partner of my
misery ; and yet this is the manner I have reason
ed, and thought, and pondered ay, until my brain
has grown heated^ and the power to reason itself
has nearly tottered. Ever since that accursed
hour, in which the truth became known to me,
and I was made the master of the fatal secret,
have I endeavored to feel and reason thus."

" What truth ? what secret ? If thou lovest
me, Sigismund, speak calmly and without reserve."

The young man gazed at her anxious face in
a way to show how deeply he felt the weight of
the blow he was about to give. Then, after a pause,
he continued.

" We have lately passed through a terrible scene
together, dearest Adelheid. It was one that may
well lessen the distances set between us by human
laws and the tyranny of opinions. Had it been
the will of God that the bark should perish, what
a confused crowd of ill-assorted spirits would have



passed together into eternity ! We had them, there,
of all degrees of vice, as of nearly all degrees of
cultivation, from the subtle iniquity of the wily
Neapolitan juggler to thine own pure soul. There
would have died in the Winkelried the noble of
high degree, the reverend priest, the soldier in the
pride of his strength, and the mendicant ! Death
is an uncompromising leveller, and the depths of
the lake, at least, might have washed out all our
infamy, whether it came of real demerits or mere
ly from received usage ; even the luckless Baltha
zar, the persecuted and hated headsman, might
have found those who would have mourned his

" If any could have died unwept in meeting
such a fate, it must have been one that, in common,
awakes so little of human sympathy; and one too,
who, by dealing himself in the woes of others, has
less claim to the compassion that we yield to most
of our species."

" Spare me in mercy, Adelheid, spare me
thou speakest of my father!"


Fortune had smil'd upon Guelbertp's birth,
The heir of Valdespesa's rich domain ;
An only child, he grew in years and worth,
And well repaid a father's anxious pain.


As Sigismund uttered this communication, so
terrible to the ear of his listener, he arose and fled
from the room. The possession of a kingdom
would not have tempted him to remain and note


its effect. The domestics of Blonay observed his
troubled air and rapid strides as he passed them,
but, too simple to suspect more than the ordinary
impetuosity of youth, he succeeded in getting
through the inferior gate of the castle and into the
fields, without attracting any embarrassing atten
tion to his movements. Here he began to breathe
more freely, arid the load which had nearly choked
his respiration became lightened. For half an
hour the young man paced the greensward scarce
ly conscious whither he went, until he found that
his steps had again led him beneath the window
of the knights' hall. Glancing an eye upward, he
saw Adelheid still seated at the balcony, and ap
parently yet alone. He thought she had been
weeping, and he cursed the weakness which had
kept him from effecting the often-renewed resolu
tion to remove himself, and his cruel fortunes, for
ever from before her mind. A second look, how
ever, showed him that he was again beckoned to
ascend ! The revolutions in the purposes of lovers
are sudden and easily effected; and Sigismund,
through whose mind a dozen ill-digested plans of
placing the sea between himself and her he loved
had just been floating, was now hurriedly re

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 14 of 22)