James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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cy as thyself," added the ingenuous girl, with a
noble frankness, " I should do injustice to my grati
tude and to my esteem for thy character. But
there is more elasticity in the heart of woman
than in that of thy imperious and proud sex. So
far from thinking of thee as thou wouldst fain be
lieve, I see naught but what is natural and justifia
ble in thy reserve. Remember, thou hast not
tempted my ears by professions and prayers, as
women are commonly entreated, but that the in
terest I feel in thee has been modestly and fairly
won. I can neither say nor hear more at present,
for this unexpected announcement has in some de
gree unsettled my mind. Leave me to reflect on
what I ought to do, and rest assured that thou
canst not have a kinder or more partial advocate
of what truly belongs to thy honor and happiness
than my own heart."

As the daughter of Melchior de Willading con
cluded, she extended her hand with affection to
the young man, who pressed it against his breast
with manly tenderness, when he slowly and reluc
tantly withdrew.



To know no more
Is woman's happiest knowledge, and her praise.


OUR heroine was a woman in the best meaning
of that endearing, and, we might add, compre
hensive word. Sensitive, reserved, and at times
even timid, on points that did not call for the ex
ercise of higher qualities, she was firm in her prin
ciples, constant as she was fond in her affections,
and self-devoted when duty and inclination united
to induce the concession, to a degree that placed
the idea of sacrifice out of the question. On the
other hand, the liability to receive lively impres
sions, a distinctive feature of her sex, and the apti
tude to attach importance to the usages by which
she was surrounded, and which is necessarily
greatest in those w r ho lead secluded and inactive
lives, rendered it additionally difficult for her mind
to escape from the trammels of opinion, and to think
with indifference of circumstances which all near
her treated with high respect, or to which they
attached a stigma allied to disgust. Had the case
been reversed, had Sigismund been noble, and
Adelheid a headsman's child, it is probable the
young man might have found the means to indulge
his passion without making too great a sacrifice
of his pride. By transporting his wife to his cas
tle, conferring his own established name, separat
ing her from all that was unpleasant and degrading
in the connexion, and finding occupation for his
own mind in the multiplied and engrossing employ
ments of his station, he would have diminished
motives for contemplating, and consequently for


lamenting, the objectionable features of the alli
ance he had made. These are the advantages
which nature and the laws of society give to man
over the weaker but the truer sex : and yet how
few would have had sufficient generosity to make
even the sacrifice of feeling which such a course
required ! On the other hand, Adelheid would be
compelled to part with the ancient and distinguish
ed appellation of her family, to adopt one which
was deemed infamous in the canton, or, if some
politic expedient were found to avert this first dis
grace, it would unavoidably be of a nature to at
tract, rather than to avert, the attention of all who
knew the facts, from the humiliating character of
his origin. She had no habitual relief against the
constant action of her thoughts, for the sphere of
woman narrows the affections in such a way as
to render them most dependent on the little acci
dents of domestic life; she could not close her
doors against communication with the kinsmen of
her husband, should it be his pleasure to command
or his feeling to desire it; and it w r ould become
obligatory on her to listen to the still but never-
ceasing voice of duty, and to forget, at his request,
that she had ever been more fortunate, or that she
was born for better hopes.

We do not say that all these calculations crossed
the mind of the musing maiden, though she cer
tainly had a general and vague view of the con
sequences that were likely to be drawn upon her
self by a connexion with Sigisrnund. She sat ^mo
tionless, buried in deep thought, long after his dis
appearance. The young man had passed by the
postern around the base of the castle, and was
descending the mountain-side, across the sloping
meadows, with rapid steps, and probably for the
first time since their acquaintance her eye followed
his manly figure vacantly and with indifference.


Her mind was too intently occupied for the
usual observation of the senses. The whole of
that grand and lovely landscape was spread before
her without conveying impressions, as we gaze
into the void of the firmament with our looks on
vacuum. Sigismund had disappeared among the
walls of the vineyards, when she arose, and drew
such a sigh as is apt to escape us after long and
painful meditation. But the eyes of the high-
minded girl were bright and her cheek flushed,
while the whole of her features wore an expres
sion of loftier beauty than ordinarily distinguished
even her loveliness. Her own resolution was
formed. She had decided with the rare and gen
erous self-devotion of a female heart that loves,
and which can love in its freshness and purity but
once. At that instant footsteps were heard in the
corridor, and the three old nobles' whom we so
lately left on the castle-terrace, appeared together
in the knights' hall".

Melchior de Willading approached his daughter
with a joyous face, for he too had lately gained
what he conceived to be a glorious conquest over
his prejudices, and the victory put him in excellent
humor with himself.

" The question is for ever decided," he said, kiss
ing the burning forehead of Adelheid with affec
tion, and rubbing his hands, in the manner of one
who was glad to be free from a perplexing doubt.
" These good friends agree with me, that, in a case
like this, it becomes even our birth to forget the
origin of the youth. He who has saved the lives
of the two last of the Willadings at least deserves
to have some share in what is left of them. Here
is my good Grimaldi, too, ready to beard me if I
will not consent to let him enrich the brave fel
low as if we were beggars, and had not the
means of supporting our kinsman in credit at


home ! But we will not be indebted even to so
tried a friend for a tittle of our happiness. The
work shall be all our own, even to the letters of
nobility, which I shall command at an early day
from Vienna ; for it would be cruel to let the noble
fellow want so simple an advantage, which will at
once raise him to our own level, and make him as
good ay, by the beard of Luther! better than
the best man in Berne."

" I have never known thee niggardly before,
though I have known thee often well intrenched
behind Swiss frugality;" said the Signor Grimaldi,
laughing. " Thy life, my dear Melchior, may
have excellent value in thine own eyes, but I am
little disposed to set so mean a price on my own,
as thou appearest to think it should command.
Thou hast decided well, I will say nobly, in the
best meaning of the word, in consenting to receive
this brave Sigismund as a son ; but thou art not to
think, young lady, because this body of mine is get
ting the worse for use, that I hold it altogether
worthless, and that it is to be dragged from yonder
lake like so much foul linen, and no questions are
to be asked touching the manner in which the ser
vice has been done. I claim to portion thy hus
band, that he may at least make an appearance
that becomes the son-in-law of Melchior de Willad-
ing. Am I of no value, that ye treat me so unce
remoniously as to say I shall not pay for my own
preservation ?"

" Have it thine own way, good Gaetano have
it as thou wilt, so thou dost but leave us the
youth "


" I will have no maidenly affectation, Adelheid.
I expect thee to receive the husband we offer with
as good a grace as if he wore a crown. It has
been agreed upon between us that Srgismund


Steinbach is to be my son ; and from^time imme
morial, the daughters of our house have submitted,
in these affairs, to what has been advised by the
wisdom of their seniors, as became their sex and

The three old men had entered the hall full of
good-humor, and it would have been sufficiently
apparent^ by the manner of the Baron de Willad-
ing, that he trifled with Adelheid, had it not been
well known to the others that her feelings were
chiefly consulted in the choice that had just been

But, notwithstanding the high glee in which the
father spoke, the pleasure and buoyancy of his
manner did not communicate itself to the child as
quickly as he could wish. There was far more
than virgin embarrassment in the mien of Adel
heid. Her color went and came, and her look
turned from one to the other painfully, while she
struggled to speak. The Signor Grimaldi whis
pered to his companions, and Roger de Blonay
discreetly withdrew, under the pretence that his
services were needed at Vevey, where active pre
parations were making for the Abbaye des Vigne-
rons. The Genoese would then have followed his
example, but the baron held his arm, while he turn
ed an inquiring eye towards his daughter, as if
commanding her to deal more frankly with him.

" Father," said Adelheid, in a voice that shook,
in spite of the effort to control her feelings, " I
have something important to communicate, before
this acceptance of Herr Steinbach is a matter
irrevocably determined."

" Speak freely, my child ; this is a tried friend,
and one entitled to know all that concerns us, es
pecially in this affair. Throwing aside all pleas
antry, I trust, Adelheid, that we are to have no
girlish trifling with a youth like Sigismund; to


whom we owe so much, even to our lives, and in
whose behalf we should be ready to sacrifice every
feeling of prejudice, or habit all that we possess,
ay, even to our pride."

"All, father?"

" I have said all. I will not take back a letter
of the word, though it should rob me of Willading,
my rank in the canton, and an ancient name to
boot. Am I not right, Gaetano 1 I place the hap
piness of the boy above all other considerations,
that of Adelheid being understood to be so inti
mately blended with his. I repeat it, therefore, all."

" It would be weH to hear what the young lady
has to say, before we urge this affair any farther ;"
said the Signor Grimaldi, who, having achieved no
conquest over himself, was not quite so exuberant
in his exultation as his friend ; observing more
calmly, and noting what he saw with the clearness
of a cooler-headed and more sagacious man. " I
am much in error, or thy daughter has that which
is serious, to communicate."

The paternal affection of Melchior now took the
alarm, and he gave an eager attention to his child.
Adelheid returned his evident solicitude by a smile
of love, but its painful expression was so unequivo
cal as to heighten the baron's fears.

" Art not well, love ? It cannot be that we have
been deceived that some peasant's daughter is
thought worthy to supplant thee? Ha! Signor
Grimaldi, this matter begins, in sooth, to seem of
fensive ; but, old as I am Well, we shall never
know the truth, unless thou speakest frankly this
is a rare business, after all, Gaetano that a daugh
ter of mine should be repulsed by a hind !"

Adelheid made an imploring gesture for her fa
ther to forbear, while she resumed her seat from
farther inability to stand. The two anxious old
men followed her example, in wondering silence,


" Thou dost both the honor and modesty of Si-
gismund great injustice, father;" resumed the
maiden, after a pause, and speaking with a calm
ness of manner that surprised even herself. " If
thou and this excellent and tried friend will give
me your attention for a few minutes, nothing shall
be concealed."

Her companions listened in wonder, for they
plainly saw that the matter was more grave than
either had at first imagined. Adelheid paused
again, to summon force for the ungrateful duty,
and then she succinctly, but clearly, related the
substance of Sigismund's communication. Both
the listeners eagerly caught each syllable that fell
from the quivering lips of the maiden, for she
trembled, notwithstanding a struggle to be calm
that was almost superhuman, and when her voice
ceased they gazed at each other like men sudden
ly astounded by some dire and totally unexpected
calamity. The baron, in truth, could scarcely be
lieve that he had not been deceived by a defective
hearing, for age had begun a little to impair that
useful faculty, while his friend admitted the words
as one receives impressions of the most revolting
and disheartening nature.

" This is a damnable and fearful fact !" muttered
the latter, when Adelheid had altogether ceased to

" Did she say that Sigismund is the son of Bal
thazar, the public headsman of the canton !" asked
the father of his friend, in the way that one re
luctantly assures himself of some half-comprehend
ed and unwelcome truth, " of Balthazar of that
family accursed !"

" Such is the parentage it hath been the will of
God to bestow on the preserver of our lives,"
meekly answered Adelheid.

" Hath the villain dared to steal into my family-


circle, concealing this disgusting and disgraceful
fact ! Hath he endeavored to engraft the impurity
of his source on the untarnished stock of a noble
and ancient family ! There is something exceeding
mere duplicity in this, Signor Grimaldi. There is
a dark and meaning crime."

" There is that which much exceeds our means
of remedying, good Melchior. But let us not
rashly blame the boy, whose birth is rather to be
imputed to him as a misfortune than as a crime.
If he were a thousand Balthazars, he has saved all
our lives !"

" Thou sayest true thou sayest no more than
the truth, Thou wert always of a more reasonable
brain than I, though thy more southern origin
would seem to contradict it. Here, then, are all
our fine fancies and liberal schemes of generosity
blown to the winds !"

" That is not so evident," returned the Genoese,
who had not failed the while to study the counte
nance of Adelheid, as if he would fully ascertain
her secret wishes. " There has been much dis
course, fair Adelheid, between thee and the youth
on this matter ?"

" Signore, there has. I was about to communi
cate the intentions of my father ; for the circum
stances in which we w r ere placed, the weight of
our many obligations, the usual distance which
rank interposes between the noble and the simply
born, perhaps justified this boldness in a maiden,"
she added, though the tell-tale blood revealed her
shame. " I was making Sigismund acquainted
with my father's wishes, when he met my con
fidence by the avowal which I have just related."
" He deems his birth ?"
" An insuperable barrier to the connexion. Si
gismund Steinbach, though so little favored in the


accident of his origin, is not a beggar to sue for
that which his own generous feelings would con

" And thou ?"

Adelheid lowered her eyes, and seemed to reflect
on the nature of her answer.

" Thou wilt pardon this curiosity, which may
wear too much the aspect of unwarrantable med
dling, but my age and ancient friendship, the recent
occurrences, and a growing love for all that con
cerns thee, must plead my excuses. Unless we
know thy wishes, daughter, neither Melchior nor
I can act as we might wish ?"

Adelheid was long and thoughtfully silent.
Though every sentiment of her heart, and all that
inclination which is the offspring of the warm and
poetical illusions of love, tempted her to declare a
readiness to sacrifice every other consideration to
the engrossing and pure affections of woman,
opinion with its iron gripe still held her in suspense
on the propriety of braving the prejudices of the
world. The timidity of that sex which, however
ready to make an offering of its most cherished
privileges on the shrine of connubial tenderness,
shrinks with a keen sensitiveness from the appear
ance of a forward devotion to the other, had its
weight also, nor could a child so pious altogether
forget the effect her decision might have on the
future happiness of her sole surviving parent.

The Genoese understood the struggle, though he
foresaw its termination, and he resumed the dis
course himself, partly with the kind wish to give
the maiden time to reflect maturely before she an
swered, and partly following a very natural train
of his own thoughts.

" There is naught sure in this fickle state of be
ing;" he continued. "Neither the throne, nor
riches, nor health, nor even the sacred affections,


are secure against change. Well may we pause
then and weigh every chance of happiness, ere we
take the last and final step in any great or novel
measure. Thou knowest the hopes with which I
entered life, Melchior, and the chilling disappoint
ments with which my career is likely to close. No
youth was born to fairer hopes, nor did Italy know
one more joyous than myself, the morning I re
ceived the hand of Angiolina ; and yet two short
years saw all those hopes withered, this joyousness
gone, and a cloud thrown across my prospects
which has never disappeared. A widowed hus
band, a childless father, may not prove a bad coun
sellor, my friend, in a moment when there is so
much doubt besetting thee and thine."

" Thy mind naturally returns to thine own un
happy child, poor Gaetano, when there is so much
question of the fortunes of mine."

The Signor Grimaldi turned his look on his
friend, but the gleam of anguish, which was wont
to pass athwart his countenance when his mind
was drawn powerfully towards that painful subject,
betrayed that he was not just then able to reply.

" We see in all these events," continued the
Genoese, as if too full of his subject to restrain his
words, " the unsearchable designs of Providence.
Here is a youth who is all that a father could desire ;
worthy in every sense to be the depository of a
beloved and only daughter's weal ; manly, brave,
virtuous, and noble in all but the chances of blood,
and yet so accursed by the world's opinion that
we might scarce venture to name him as the as
sociate of an idle hour, w r ere the fact known that
he is the man he has declared himself to be !"

" You put the matter in strong language, Signor
Grimaldi ;" said Adelheid, starting.

" A youth of a form so commanding that a king


might exult at the prospect of his crown descend
ing on such a head; of a perfection of strength
and masculine excellence that will almost justify
the dangerous exultation of health and vigor ; of
a reason that is riper than his years ; of a virtue
of proof ; of all qualities that we respect, and which
come of study and not of accident, and yet a
youth condemned of men to live under the re
proach of their hatred and contempt, or to con
ceal for ever the name of the mother that bore
him ! Compare this Sigismund with others that
may be named ; with the high-born and pampered
heir of some illustrious house, who riots in men's
respect while he shocks men's morals ; who pre
sumes on privilege to trifle with the sacred and
the just ; who lives for self, and that in base enjoy
ments ; who is fitter to be the lunatic's companion
than any other's, though destined to rule in the
council; who is the type of the wdcked, though
called to preside over the virtuous; w T ho cannot
be esteemed, though entitled to be honored ; and
let us ask why this is so, what is the wisdom which
hath drawn differences so arbitrary, and which,
while proclaiming the necessity of justice, so openly,
so wantonly, and so ingeniously sets its plainest
dictates at defiance ?"

" Signore, it should not be thus God never in
tended it should be so !"

" While every principle would seem to say that
each must stand or fall by his own good or evil
deeds, that men are to be honored as they merit,
every device of human institutions is exerted to
achieve the opposite. This is exalted, because his
ancestry is noble ; that condemned for no better
reason than that he is born vile. Melchior ! Mel-
chior! our reason is unhinged by subtleties, and
our boasted philosophy and right are no more than


unblushing mockeries, at which the very devils
laugh I"

" And yet the commandments of God tell us,
Gaetano, that the sins of the father shall be visited
on the descendants from generation to generation.
You of Rome pay not this close attention, per
haps, to sacred writ, but I have heard it said that
we have not in Berne a law for which good war
ranty cannot be found in the holy volume itself."

" Ay, there are sophists to prove all that they
wish. The crimes and follies of the ancestor leave
their physical, or even their moral taint, on the
child, beyond a question, good Melchior ; but is
not this sufficient ? Are we blasphemously, even
impiously, to pretend that God has not sufficiently
provided for the punishment of the breaches of his
wise ordinances, that we must come forward to
second them by arbitrary and heartless rules of
our own? What crime is imputable to the family
of this youth beyond that of poverty, which prob
ably drove the first of his race to the execution of
their revolting office. There is little in the mien
or morals of Sigismund to denote the visitations
of Heaven's wise decrees, but there is everything
in his present situation to proclaim the injustice of

" And dost thou, Gaetano Grimaldi, the ally of
so many ancient and illustrious houses thou, Gae
tano Grimaldi, the honored of Genoa dost thou
counsel me to give my only child, the heiress of
my lands and name, to the son of the public exe
cutioner, nay, to the very heritor of his disgusting
duties !"

" There thou hast me on the hip, Melchior ; the
question is put strongly, and needs reflection for
an answer. Oh ! why is this Balthazar so rich in
offspring, and I so poor ? But we will not press the
matter ; it is an affair of many sides, and should


be judged by us as men, as well as nobles. Daugh
ter, thou hast just learned, by the words of thy
father, that I am against thee, by position and her
itage, for, while I condemn the principle of this
wrong, I cannot overlook its effects, and never be
fore did a case of as tangled difficulty, one in which
right was so palpably opposed by opinion, present
itself for my judgment. Leave us, that we may
command ourselves ; the required decision exacts
much care, and greater mastery of ourselves than
I can exercise, with that sweet pale face of thine
appealing so eloquently to my heart in behalf of
the noble boy."

Adelheid arose, and first offering her marble-
like brow to the salutations of both her parents,
for the ancient friendship and strong sympathies
of the Genoese, gave him a claim to this appella
tion in her affections at least, she silently withdrew.
As to the conversation which ensued between the
old nobles, we momentarily drop the curtain, to
proceed to other incidents of our narrative. It
may, however, be generally observed that the day
passed quietly away, without the occurrence of
any event which it is necessary to relate, all in
the chateau, with the exception of the travellers,
being principally occupied by the approaching fes
tivities. The Signor Grimaldi sought an occasion
to have a long and confidential communication with
Sigismund, who, on his part, carefully avoided be
ing seen again by her who had so great an influ
ence on his feelings, until both had time to recover
their self-command.



Hold, hurt him not, for God's sake ; he is mad.


THE festivals of Bacchus are supposed to have
been the models of those long-continued festivities,
which are still known in Switzerland by the name
of the Abbaye des Vignerons.

This fete was originally of a simple and rustic
character, being far from possessing the labored
ceremonies and classical allegories of a later day,
the severity of monkish discipline most probably
prohibiting the introduction of allusions to the
Heathen mythology, as was afterwards practised ;
for certain religious communities that were the
proprietors of large vineyards in that vicinity ap
pear to have been the first known patrons of the
custom. So long as a severe simplicity reigned

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 16 of 22)