James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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tracing his steps to her presence.

Adelheid had necessarily been educated under
the influence of the prejudices of the age and of
the country in which she lived. The existence of
the office of headsman in Berne, and the nature of
its hereditary duties, were well known to her ; and,
though superior to the inimical feeling which had
so lately been exhibited against the luckless Bal
thazar, she had certainly never anticipated a shock
so cruel as was now produced, by abruptly learn
ing that this despised and persecuted being was the
father of the youth to whom she had yielded her
virgin affections. When the words which pro-


claimed the connexion had escaped the lips of Si-
gismund, she listened like one who fancied that
her ears deceived her. She had prepared herself
to learn that he derived his being from some pea
sant or ignoble artisan, and, once or twice, as he
drew nearer to the fatal declaration, awkward
glimmerings of a suspicion that some repulsive
moral unworthiness was connected with his origin
troubled her imagination; but her apprehensions
could not, by possibility, once turn in the direction
of the revolting truth. It was some time before
she was able to collect her thoughts, or to reflect
on the course it most became her to pursue. But,
as has been seen, it was long before she could sum
mon the self-command to request what she now
saw was doubly necessary, another meeting with
her lover. As both had thought of nothing but his
last words during the short separation, there ap
peared no abruptness in the manner in which he
resumed the discourse, on seating himself at her
side, exactly as if they had not parted at all.

" The secret has been torn from me, Adelheid.
The headsman of the canton is my father; were
the fact publicly known, the heartless and obdurate
laws would compel me to be his successor. He
has no other child, except a gentle girl one inno
cent and kind as thou."

Adelheid covered her face with both her hands,
as if to shut out a view of the horrible truth. Per
haps an instinctive reluctance to permit her com
panion to discover how great a blow had been
given by this avowal of his birth, had also its in
fluence in producing the movement. They who
have passed the period of youth, and who can re
call those days of inexperience and hope, when the
affections are fresh and the heart is untainted with
too much communion with the world, and, espe
cially, they who know of what a delicate com-


pound of the imaginative and the real the master-
passion is formed, how sensitively it regards all that
can reflect credit on the beloved object, and with
what ingenuity it endeavors to find plausible ex
cuses for every blot that may happen, either by
accident or demerit, to tarnish the lustre of a pic
ture that fancy has so largely aided in drawing,
will understand the rude nature of the shock that
she had received. But Adelheid de Willading,
though a woman in the liveliness and fervor of her
imagination, as well as in the proneness to conceive
her own ingenuous conceptions to be more found
ed in reality than a sterner view of things might
possibly have warranted, was a woman also in
the more generous qualities of the heart, and in
those enduring principles, which seem to have pre
disposed the better part of the sex to make the
heaviest sacrifices rather than be false to their af
fections. While her frame shuddered, therefore,
with the violence and abruptness of the emotions
she had endured, dawnings of the right gleamed
upon her pure mind, and it was not long before
she was able to contemplate the truth with the
steadiness of principle, though it might, at the same
time, have been with much of the lingering weak
ness of humanity. When she lowered her hands,
she looked towards the mute and watchful Sigis-
mund, with a smile that caused the deadly paleness
of her features to resemble a gleam of the sun
lighting upon a spotless peak of her native moun

" It would be vain to endeavor to conceal from
thee, Sigismund," she said, " that 1 could wish this
were not so. I will confess even more that
when the truth first broke upon me, thy repeated
services, and, what is even less pardonable, thy
tried worth, were for an instant forgotten in the
reluctance I felt to admit that my fate could ever


be united with one so unhappily situated. There
are moments when prejudices and habits are strong
er than reason ; but their triumph is short in well-
intentioned minds. The terrible injustice 6f our
laws have never struck me with such force before,
though last night, while those wretched travellers
were so eager for the blood of of "

" My father, Adelheid."

" Of the author of thy being, Sigismund," she
continued, with a solemnity that proved to the
young man how deeply she reverenced the tie, " I
was compelled to see that society might be cruelly
unjust; but now I find its laws and prohibitions
visiting one like thee, so far from joining in its op
pression, my soul revolts against the wrong."

" Thanks thanks a thousand thanks !" return
ed the young man, fervently. " I did not expect
less than this from thee, Mademoiselle de Willad-

" If thou didst not expect more far more, Sigis
mund," resumed the maiden, her ashen hue bright
ened to crimson, " thou hast scarcely been less un
just than the world ; and I will add, thou hast nev
er understood that Adelheid de Willading, whose
name is uttered with so cold a form. We all have
moments of weakness ; moments when the seduc
tions of life, the worthless ties which bind together
the thoughtless and selfish in what are called the
interests of the world, appear of more value than
aught else. I am no visionary, to fancy imaginary
and factitious obligations superior to those which
nature and wisdom have created for if there be
much unjustifiable cruelty in the practices, there is
also much that is wise in the ordinances, of socie
ty or to think that a wayward fancy is to be
indulged at any and every expense to the feel
ings and opinions of others. On the contrary, I
well know that so long as men exist in the condi-


tion in which they are, it is little more than com
mon prudence to respect their habits ; and that ill-
assorted unions, in general, contain in themselves
a dangerous enemy to happiness. Had I always
known thy history, dread of the consequences, or
those cold forms which protect the fortunate,
would probably have interposed to prevent either
from learning much of the other's character. I
say not this, Sigismund, as by thy eye I see thoo
wouldst think, in reproach for any deception, for I
well know the accidental nature of our acquaint
ance, and that the intimacy was forced upon thee
by our own importunate gratitude, but simply, and
in explanation of my own feelings. As it is, we
are not to judge of our situation by ordinary rules.,
and I am not now to decide on your pretensions
to my hand merely as the daughter of the Baron
de Willading receiving a proposal from one whose
birth is not noble, but as Adelheid should weigh
the claims of Sigismund, subject to some diminu
tion of advantages, if thou wilt, that is perhaps
greater than she had at first anticipated."

" Dost thou consider the acceptance of my hand
possible, after what thou knowest !" exclaimed the
young man, in open wonder.

" So far from regarding the question in that
manner, I ask myself if it will be right if it be
possible, to reject the preserver of my own life,
the preserver of my father's life, Sigismund Stein-
bach, because he is the son of one that men per
secute ?"

"Adelheid !"

" Do not anticipate my words," said the maiden
calmly, but in a way to check his impatience by
the quiet dignity of her manner. " This is an im
portant, I might say a solemn decision, and it has
been presented to me suddenly and without prepa
ration. Thou wilt not think the worse of me, for


asking time to reflect before I give the pledge that,
in my eyes, will be for ever sacred. My father,
believing thee to be of obscure origin, and tho
roughly conscious of thy worth, dear Sigismund.
authorized me to speak as I did in the beginning
of our interview ; but my father may possibly think
the conditions of his consent altered by this un
happy exposure of the truth. It is meet that I tell
him all, for thou knowest I must abide by his de
cision. This thine own sense and filial piety will

In spite of the strong objectionable facts that he
had just revealed, hope had begun to steal upon the
wishes of the young man, as he listened to the
consoling words of the single-minded and affec
tionate Adelheid. It would scarcely have been pos
sible for a youth so endowed by nature, and one
so inevitably conscious of his own value, though
so modest in its exhibition, not to feel encouraged
by her ingenuous and frank admission, as she be
trayed his influence over her happiness in the un
disguised and simple manner related. But the in
tention to appeal to her father caused him to view
the subject more dispassionately, for his strong
sense was not slow in pointing out the difference
between the two judges, in a case like his.

" Trouble him not, Adelheid ; the consciousness
that his prudence denies what a generous feeling
might prompt him to bestow, may render him un
happy. It is impossible that Melchior de Willading
should- consent to give an only child to a son of
the headsman of his canton. At some other time,
when the recollections of the late storm shall be
less vivid, thine own reason will approve of his

His companion, who was thoughtfully leaning
her spotless brow on her hand, did not appear to
hear his words. She had recovered from the shock


given by the sudden announcement of his origin,
and was now musing intently, and with cooler dis
crimination, on the commencement of their ac
quaintance, its progress and all its little incidents,
down to the two grave events which had so
gradually and firmly cemented the sentiments of
esteem and admiration in the stronger and indelible
tie of affection.

" If thou art the son of him thou namest, why
art thou known by the name of Steinbach, when
Balthazar bears another ?" demanded Adelheid,
anxious to seize even the faintest hold of hope.

" It was my intention to conceal nothing, but to
lay before thee the history of my life, with all the
reasons that may have influenced my conduct,"
returned Sigismund : " at some other time, when
both are in a calmer state of mind, I shall dare to
entreat a hearing "

" Delay is unnecessary it might evn- be im
proper. It is my duty to explain every thing to
my father, and he may wish to know why thou
hast not always appeared what thou art. Do not
fancy, Sigismund, that I distrust thy motive, but
the wariness of the old and the confidence of the
young have so little in common ! I would rather
that thou told me now."

He yielded to the mild earnestness of her man
ner, and to the sweet, but sad, smile with which
she seconded the appeal.

" If thou wilt hear the melancholy history, Adel-
heid," he said, " there is no sufficient reason why
I should wish to postpone the little it will be ne
cessary to say. You are probably familiar with
the laws of the canton, I mean those cruel ordi
nances by which a particular family is condemned,
for a better word can scarcely be found, to dis
charge the duties of this revolting office. This
duty may have been a privilege in the dark ages.


but it is now become a tax that none, who have
been educated with better hopes, can endure to pay.
My father, trained from infancy to expect the em
ployment, and accustomed to its discharge in con
templation, succeeded to his parent while yet
young ; and, though formed by nature a meek and
even a compassionate man, he has never shrunk
from his bloody tasks, whenever required to fulfil
them by the command of his superiors. But, touch
ed by a sentiment of humanity, it was his wish to
avert from me what his better reason led him to
think the calamity of our race. I am the eldest
born, and, strictly, I was the child most liable to
be called to assume the office, but, as I have heard,
the tender love of my mother induced her to sug
gest a plan by which I, at least, might be rescued
from the odium that had so long been attached to
our name. I was secretly conveyed from the
house while yet an infant ; a feigned death con
cealed the pious fraud, and thus far, Heaven be
praised ! the authorities are ignorant of my birth !"

"And thy mother, Sigismund ; I have great re
spect for that noble mother, who, doubtless, is en
dowed with more than her sex's firmness and
constancy, since she must have sworn faith and
love to thy father, knowing his duties and the hope
lessness of their being evaded ? I feel a reverence
for a woman so superior to the weaknesses, and
yet so true to the real and best affections, of her
sex !"

The young man smiled so painfully as to cause
his enthusiastic companion to regret that she had
put the question.

" My mother is certainly a woman not only to
be loved, but in many particulars deeply to be re
vered. My poor and noble mother has a thousand
excellencies, being a most tender parent, with a
heart so kind that it would grieve her to see injury


done even to the meanest living thing. She was
not a woman, surely, intended by God to be the
mother of a line of executioners !"

" Thou seest, Sigismund," said Adelheid, nearly
breathless in the desire to seek an excuse for her
own predilections, and to lessen the mental agony
he endured " thou seest that one gentle and ex
cellent woman, at least, could trust her happiness
to thy family. No doubt she was the daughter of
some worthy and just-viewing burgher of the can
ton, that had educated his child to distinguish be
tween misfortune and crime ?"

" She was an only child and an heiress, like thy
self, Adelheid;" he answered, looking about him
as if he sought some object on which he might
cast part of the bitterness that loaded his heart.
" Thou art not less the beloved and cherished of
thine own parent than was my excellent mother of
her's !"

" Sigismund, thy manner is startling ! What
wouldst thou say ?"

" Neufchatel, and other countries besides Berne,
have their .privileged ! My mother was the only
child of the headsman of the first. Thus thou
seest, Adelheid, that I boast my quarterings as
well as another. God be praised ! we are not le
gally compelled, however, to butcher the con
demned of any country but our own !"

The wild bitterness with which this was uttered,
and the energy of his language, struck thrilling
chords on every nerve of his listener.

" So many honors should not be unsupported ;"
he resumed. " We are rich, for people of humble
wishes, and have ample means of living withou
the revenues of our charge I love to put forth
our long-acquired honors ! The means of a re
spectable livelihood are far from being wanted. I
have told you of the kind intentions of my mother


to redeem one of her children, at least, from the
stigma which weighed upon us all, and the birth
of a second son enabled her to effect this charita
ble purpose, without attracting attention. I was
nursed and educated apart, for many years, in ig
norance of my birth. At a suitable age, notwith
standing the early death of my brother, I was sent
to seek advancement in the service of the house of
Austria, under the feigned name I bear. I will not
tell thee the anguish I felt, Adelheid, when the truth
was at length revealed ! Of all the cruelties inflict
ed by society, there is none so unrighteous in its
nature as the stigma it entails in the succession of
crime or misfortune : of all its favors, none can
find so little justification, in right and reason, as
the privileges accorded to the accident of descent."

" And yet we are much accustomed to honor
those that come of an ancient line, and to see. some
part of the glory of the ancestor even in the most
remote descendant."

" The more remote, the greater is the world's
deference. What better proof can we have of
the world's weakness ? Thus the immediate child
of the hero, he whose blood is certain, who bears
the image of the father in his face, who has lis
tened to his counsels, and may be supposed to have
derived, at least, some portion of his greatness
from the nearness of his origin, is less a prince
than he who has imbibed the current through a
hundred vulgar streams, and, were truth but known,
may have no natural claim at all upon the much-
prized blood ! This comes of artfully leading the
mind to prejudices, and of a vicious longing in
man to forget his origin and destiny, by wishing
to be more than nature ever intended he should

" Surely, Sigismund, there is something justifia-


ble in the sentiment of desiring to belong to the
good and noble !"

" If good and noble were the same. Thou hast
well designated the feeling ; so long as it is truly
a sentiment, it is not only excusable but wise ; for
who would not wish to come of the brave, a'nd
honest, and learned, or by what other greatness
they may be known ? it is wise, since the legacy
of his virtues is perhaps the dearest incentive that
a good man has for struggling against the cur
rents of baser interest ; but what hope is left to
one like me, who finds himself so placed that he
can neither inherit nor transmit aught but disgrace!
I do not affect to despise the advantages of birth,
simply because I do not possess them ; I only com
plain that artful combinations have perverted what
should be sentiment and taste, into a narrow and
vulgar prejudice, by which the really ignoble en
joy privileges greater than those perhaps who are
worthy of the highest honors man can bestow."

Adelheid had encouraged the digression, which,
w r ith one less gifted with strong good sense than
Sigismund, might have only served to wound his
pride, but she perceived that he eased his mind by
thus drawing on his reason, and by setting up that
which should be in opposition to that which was.

"Thou knowest," she answered, "that neither
my father nor I am disposed to lay much stress on
the opinions of the world, as it concerns thee."

" That is, neither will insist on nobility ; but will
either consent to share the obloquy of a'union with
an hereditary executioner ?"

" Thou hast not yet related all it may be neces
sary to know that we may decide."

" There is left little to explain. The expedient
of my kind parents has thus far succeeded. Their
two surviving children, my sister and myself, were
snatched, for a time at least, from their accursed



fortune, while my poor brother, who promised little,
was left, by a partiality I will not stop to examine,
to pass as the inheritor of our infernal privileges
Nay, pardon, dearest Adelheid, I will be more cool ;
but death has saved the youth from the execrable
duties, and I am now the only male child of Bal
thazar yes," he added, laughing frightfully, " I,
too, have now a narrow monopoly of all the hon
ors of our house !"

" Thou thou, Sigismund with thy habits, thy
education, thy feelings, thou surely canst not be
required to discharge the duties of this horrible
office !"

" It is easy to see that my high privileges do not
charm you, Mademoiselle de Willading ; nor can I
wonder at the taste. My chief surprise should be,
that you so long tolerate an executioner in your

" Did I not know and understand the bitterness
of feeling natural to one so placed, this language
would cruelly hurt me, Sigismund ; but thou canst
not truly mean there is a real danger of thy ever
being called to execute this duty? Should there
be the chance of such a calamity, may not the in
fluence of my father avert it ? He is not without
weight in the councils of the canton."

" At present his friendship need not be taxed,
for none but my parents, my sister, and thou,
Adelheid, are acquainted with the facts I have just
related. My poor sister is an artless, but an unhap
py girl, for the well-intentioned design of our
mother has greatly disqualified her from bearing
the truth, as she might have done, had it been kept
constantly before her eyes. To the world, a young
kinsman of my father appears destined to succeed
him, and there the matter must stand until fortune
shall decide differently. As respects my poor
sister, there is some little hope that the evil may be


altogether averted. She is on the point of a mar
riage here at Vevey, that may be the means of
concealing her origin in new ties. As for me,
time must decide my fate."

"Why should the truth be ever known!" ex
claimed Adelheid, nearly gasping for breath, in her
eagerness to propose some expedient that should
rescue Sigismund for ever from so odious an office.

" Thou sayest that there are ample means in thy
family relinquish all to this youth, on condition
that he assume thy place !"

" I would gladly beggar myself to be quit of

" Nay, thou wilt not be a beggar while there is
wealth among the de Willadings. Let the final
decision, in respect to other things, be what it may,
this can we at least promise !"

" My sword will prevent me from being under
the necessity of accepting the boon thou wouldst
offer. With this good sword I can always com
mand an honorable existence, should Providence
save me from the disgrace of exchanging it for that
of the executioner. But there exists an obstacle of
which thou hast not yet heard. My sister, who
has certainly no admiration for the honors that
have humiliated our race for so many generations
I might say ages have we not ancient honors,
Adelheid, as well as thou ? my sister is contract
ed to one who bargains for eternal secrecy on this
point, as the condition of his accepting the hand
and ample dowry of one of the gentlest of human
beings ! Thou seest that others are not as gene
rous as thyself, Adelheid ! My father, anxious to
dispose of his child, has consented to the terms,
and as the youth who is next in succession to the
family-honors is little disposed to accept them, and
has already some suspicion of the deception as re
spects her, I may be compelled to appear in order


to protect the offspring of my unoffending sister
from the curse."

This was assailing Adelheid in a point where
she was the weakest. One of her generous tem
perament and self-denying habits could scarce
entertain the wish of exacting that from another
which she w r as not willing to undergo herself, and
the hope that had just been reviving in her heart
was nearly extinguished by the discovery. Still
she was so much in the habit of feeling under the
guidance of her excellent sense, and it was so nat
ural to cling to her just wishes, while there was a
reasonable chance of their being accomplished,
that she did not despair.

" Thy sister and her future husband know her
birth, and understand the chances they run/'

" She knows all this, and such is her generosity,
that she is not disposed to betray me in order to
serve herself. But this self-denial forms an addi
tional obligation on my part to declare myself the
wretch I am. I cannot say that my sister is ac
customed to regard our long-endured fortunes with
all the horror I feel, for she has been longer ac
quainted with the facts, and the domestic habits of
her sex have left her less exposed to the encounter
of the world's hatred, and perhaps she is partly
ignorant of all the odium we sustain. My long
absences in foreign services delayed the confidence
as respects myself, while the yearnings of a mother
towards an only daughter caused her to be received
into the family, though still in secret, several years
before I was told the truth. She is also much my
junior; and all these causes, with some difference
in our education, have less disposed her to misery
than I am ; for while my father, with a cruel kind
ness, had me well and even liberally instructed,
Christine was taught as better became the hopes
and origin of both. Now tell me, Adelheid, that


thou hatest me for my parentage, and despisest me
for having so long dared to intrude on thy compa
ny, with the full consciousness of what I am for
ever present to my thoughts!"

" I like not to hear thee make these bitter allu
sions to an accident of this nature, Sigismund.
Were I to tell thee that I do not feel this circum
stance with nearly, if not quite, as much poignan

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 15 of 22)