James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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felt for each other the respect which courage and
force are apt to create, were soon on the usual
terms of animals of their kind that have no parti
cular grounds for contention.

The guardian of the city improved the calm pro
duced by this little incident, to regain a portion of
his lost authority. Beating back the crowd with



THE HEADSMAN. 17

his cane, he cleared a space around the gate into
which but one of the travellers could enter at a
time, while he professed himself not only ready but
determined to proceed with his duty, without fur
ther procrastination. Baptiste, the patron, who
beheld the precious moments wasting, and who, in
the delay, foresaw a loss of wind, which, to one of
his pursuits, was loss of money, now earnestly
pressed the travellers to comply with the necessary
forms, and to take their stations in his bark with
all convenient speed.

" Of what matter is it," continued the calculat
ing waterman, who was rather conspicuously
known for the love of thrift that is usually at
tributed to most of the inhabitants of that region,
" whether there be one headsman or twenty in the
bark, so long as the good vessel can float and
steer? Our Leman winds are fickle friends, and
the wise take them w r hile in the humor. Give me
the breeze at west, and I will load the Winkelried
to the water's edge with executioners, or any other
pernicious creatures thou wilt, and thou mayest
take the lightest bark that ever swam in the bise,
and let us see who will first make the haven of
Vevey !"

The loudest, and in a sense that is very impor
tant in all such discussions, the principal, speaker
in the dispute, was the leader of the Neapolitan
troupe, who, in virtue of good lungs, an agility that
had no competitor in any present, and a certain
mixture of superstition and bravado, that formed
nearly equal ingredients in his character, was a
man likely to gain great influence with those who,
from their ignorance and habits, had an inherent
love of the marvellous, and a profound respect for
all who possessed, in acting, more audacity, and,
in believing, more credulity than themselves. The
vulgar like an excess, even if it be of folly ; for, in
B2



18 THE HEADSMAN,

their eyes, the abundance of any particular quality
is very apt to be taken as the standard of its ex
cellence.

" This is well for him who receives, but it may
be death to him that pays," cried the son of the
south, gaining not a little among his auditors by
the distinction, for the argument was sufficiently
wily, as between the buyer and the seller. " Thou
wilt get thy silver for the risk, and we may get
watery graves for our, weakness. Nought but
mishaps can come of wicked company, and ac
cursed will they be, in the evil hour, that are found
in brotherly communion with one whose trade is
hurrying Christians into eternity, before the time
that has been lent by nature is fairly up. Santa
Madre ! I would not be the fellow-traveller of such
a wretch, across this wild and changeable lake, for
the honor of leaping and showing my poor powers
in the presence of the Holy Father, and the whole
of the learned conclave !"

This solemn declaration, which was made with
suitable gesticulation, and an action of the counte
nance that was well adapted to prove the speaker's
sincerity, produced a corresponding effect on most
of the listeners, who murmured their applause in a
manner sufficiently significant to convince the
patron he was not about to dispose of the difficulty,
simply by virtue of fair words. In this dilemma,
he bethought him of a plan of overcoming the
scruples of all present, in which he was warmly
seconded by the agent of the police, and to which,
after the usual number of cavilling objections that
were generated by distrust, heated blood, and the
obstinacy of disputation, the other parties were
finally induced to give their consent. It was
agreed that the examination should no longer be
delayed, but that a species of deputation from the
crowd might take their stand within the gate,



THE HEADSMAN. 19 '

where all who passed would necessarily be subject
to their scrutiny, and, in the event of their vigi
lance detecting the abhorred and proscribed Bal
thazar, that the patron should return his money to
the headsman, and preclude him from forming one
of a party that was so scrupulous of its associa
tion, and, apparently, with so little reason. The
Neapolitan, whose name was Pippo ; one of the
indigent scholars, for a century since learning was
rather the auxiliary than the foe of superstition ;
and a certain Nicklaus Wagner, a fat Bernese,
who was the owner of most of the cheeses in the
bark, were the chosen of the multitude on this oc
casion. The first owed his election to his vehe
mence and volubility, qualities that the ignoble
vulgar are very apt to mistake for conviction and
knowledge; the second to his silence and a de-
mureness of air which pass with another class for
the stillness of deep water ; and the last to his sub
stance, as a man of known wealth, an advantage
which, in spite of all that alarmists predict on one
side and enthusiasts affirm on the other, will al
ways carry greater weight with those who are
less fortunate in this respect, than is either reason
able or morally healthful, provided it is not abused
by arrogance or by the assumption of very extrav
agant and oppressive privileges. As a matter of
course, these deputed guardians of the common
rights were first obliged to submit their own pa
pers to the eye of the Genevese.*

* As we have so often alluded to this examination, it may
be well to explain, that the present system of gend'armerie and
passports did not then prevail in Europe ; taking 1 their rise
nearly a century later than that in which the events of this
tale had place. But Geneva was a small and exposed state,
and the regulation to which there is reference here, was one
of the provisions which were resorted to, from time to time,
in order to protect those liberties and that independence, of
which its citizens were so unceasingly and so wisely jealous..



20 THE HEADSMAN.

The Neapolitan, than whom an archer knave,
or one that had committed more petty wrongs, did
not present himself that day at the water-gate, was
regularly fortified by every precaution that the
long experience of a vagabond could suggest, and
he was permitted to pass forthwith. The poor
Westphalian student presented an instrument fairly
written out in scholastic Latin, and escaped further
trouble by the vanity of the unlettered agent of the
police, who hastily affirmed it was a pleasure to
encounter documents so perfectly in form. But
the Bernese was about to take his station by the
side of the other two, appearing to think inquiry,
in his case, unnecessary. While moving through
the passage in stately silence, Nicklaus Wagner
was occupied in securing the strings of a well-
filled purse, which he had just lightened of a small
copper coin, to reward the varlet of the hostelry
in which he had passed the night, and who had
been obliged to follow him to the port to obtain
even this scanty boon ; and the Genevese was fain
to believe that, in the urgency of this important
concern, he had overlooked those forms which all
were, just then, obliged to respect, on quitting the
town.

" Thou hast a name and character ?" observed
the latter, with official brevity.

" God help thee, friend ! I did not think Gene
va had been so particular with a Swiss ; and a
Swiss who is so favorably known on the Aar, and
indeed over the whole of the great canton ! I am
Nicklaus Wagner, a name of little account, per
haps, but which is well esteemed among men of
substance, and which has a right even to the Bu'r-
gerschaft Nicklaus Wagner of Berne thou wilt
scarce need more ?"

" Naught but proof of its truth. Thou wilt re
member this is Geneva ; the laws of a small and



THE HEADSMAN. 21

exposed state need be particular in affairs of this
nature."

" I never questioned thy state being Geneva ; I
only wonder thou shouldst doubt my being Nick-
laus Wagner ! I can journey the darkest night that
ever threw a shadow from the mountains, any
where between the Jura and the Oberland, and
none shall say my word is to be disputed. Look
'ee, there is the patron, Baptiste, who will tell thee,
that if he were to land the freight which is shipped
in my name, his bark would float greatly the
lighter."

All this time Nicklaus was nothing loth to show
his papers, which were quite in rule. He even
held them, with a thumb and finger separating the
folds, ready to be presented to his questioner. The
hesitation came from a feeling of wounded vanity,
which would gladly show that one of his local im
portance and known substance was to be exempt
from the exactions required from men of smaller
means. The officer, who had great practice in
this species of collision with his fellow-creatures,
understood the character with which he had to
deal, and, seeing no good reason for refusing to
gratify a feeling which was innocent, though suf
ficiently silly, he yielded to the Bernese pride.

" Thou canst proceed," he said, turning the in
dulgence to account, with a ready knowledge of
his duty ; " and when thou gettest again among
thy burghers, do us of Geneva the grace to say,
we treat our allies fairly."

" I thought thy question hasty !" exclaimed the
wealthy peasant, swelling like one who gets jus
tice, though tardily. " Now let us to this knotty
affair of the headsman."

Taking his place with the Neapolitan and the
Westphalian, Nicklaus assumed the grave air of
a judge, and an austerity of manner which proved



22 THE HEADSMAN.

that he entered on his duty with a firm resolution
to do justice.

" Thou art well known here, pilgrim," observed
the officer, with some severity of tone, to the next
that came to the gate.

' St. Francis to speed, master, it were else
wonderful ! I should be so, for the seasons scarce
come and go more regularly."

" There must be a sore conscience somewhere,
that Rome and thou should need each other so
often?"

The pilgrim, who was enveloped in a tattered
coat, sprinkled with cockle-shells, who wore his
beard, and was altogether a disgusting picture
of human depravity, rendered still more revolting
by an ill-concealed hypocrisy, laughed openly
and recklessly at the remark.

" Thou art a follower of Calvin, master," he
replied, " or thou would'st not have said this. My
own failings give me little trouble. I am engaged
by certain parishes of Germany to take upon my
poor person their physical pains, and it is not easy
to name another that hath done as many messages
of this kind as myself, with better proofs of fideli
ty. If thou hast any little offering to make, thou
shalt see fair papers to prove what I say ; papers
that would pass at St. Peter's itself!"

The officer perceived that he had to do with one
of those unequivocal hypocrites if such a word can
properly be applied to him who scarcely thought
deception necessary who then made a traffic of
expiations of this nature ; a pursuit that was com
mon enough at the close of the seventeenth and in
the commencement of the eighteenth centuries, and
which has not even yet entirely disappeared from
Europe. He threw the pass with unconcealed
aversion towards the profligate, who, recovering
his document, assumed unasked his station by the



THE HEADSMAN". 23

side of the three who had been selected to decide
on the fitness of those who were to be allowed to
embark.

" Go to !" cried the officer, as he permitted this
ebullition of disgust to escape him ; " thou hast
well said that we are followers of Calvin. Geneva
has little in common with her of the scarlet man
tle, and thou wilt do well to remember this, in thy
next pilgrimage, lest the beadle make acquaintance
with thy back. Hold ! who art thou?"

" A heretic, hopelessly damned by anticipation,
if that of yonder travelling prayer-monger be
the true faith ;" answered one who was pressing
past, with a quiet assurance that had near carried
its point without incurring the risks of the usual
investigation into his name and character. It was
the owner of Nettuno, whose aquatic air and per
fect self-possession now caused the officer to doubt
whether he had not stopped a waterman of the
lake a class privileged to come and go at will.

" Thou knowest our usages," said the half-satis
fied Genevese.

" I were a fool else ! Even the ass that often
travels the same path comes in time to tell its
turns and windings. Art not satisfied with touch
ing the pride of the worthy Nicklaus Wagner, by
putting the well-warmed burgher to his proofs, but
thou would'st e'en question me! Come hither,
Nettuno ; thou shalt answer for both, being a dog
of discretion. We are no go-betweens of heaven
and earth, thou knowest, but creatures that come
part of the water and part of the land !"

The Italian spoke loud and confidently, and in
the manner of one who addressed himself more to
the humors of those near than to the understand
ing of the Genevese. He laughed, and looked
about him in a manner to extract an echo from
the crowd, though not one among them all could



24 THE HEADSMAN.

probably have given a sufficient reason why he
had so readily taken part with the stranger against
the authorities of the town, unless it might have
been from the instinct of opposition to the law.

" Thou hast a name ?" continued the half-yield
ing, half-doubting guardian of the port.

" Dost take me to be worse oft' than the bark of
Baptiste, there ? I have papers, too, if thou wilt that
I go to the vessel in order to seek them. This dog
is Nettuno, a brute from a far country, where
brutes swim like fishes, and my name is Maso,
though wicked-minded men call me oftener II
Maledetto than by any other title."

All in the throng, who understood the significa
tion of what the Italian said, laughed aloud, and
apparently with great glee, for, to the grossly
vulgar, extreme audacity has an irresistible charm.
The officer felt that the merriment w r as against
him, though he scarce knew why ; and ignorant
of the language in which the other had given his
extraordinary appellation, he yielded to the conta
gion, and laughed with the others, like one who
understood the joke to the bottom. The Italian
profited by this advantage, nodded familiarly with
a good-natured and knowing smile, and proceeded.
Whistling the dog to his side, he walked leisurely
to the bark, into which he w T as the first that en
tered, always preserving the deliberation and calm
of a man who felt himself privileged, and safe from
farther molestation. This cool audacity effected
its purpose, though one long and closely hunted
by the law evaded the authorities of the town,
when this singular being took his seat by the little
package which contained his scanty wardrobe.



THE HEADSMAN. 25



CHAPTER II.

My nobiel liege ! all my request
Ys for a nobile knyghte,
Who, tho' mayhap he has done wronge,
Hee thoughte ytt stylle was righte."

CHATTERTON.

WHILE this impudent evasion of vigilance was
successfully practised by so old an offender, the
trio of sentinels, with their volunteer assistant the
pilgrim, manifested the greatest anxiety to prevent
the contamination of admitting the highest execu
tioner of the law to form one of the strangely as
sorted company. No sooner did the Genevese
permit a traveller to pass, than they commenced
their private and particular examination, which
was sufficiently fierce, for more than once had they
threatened to turn back the trembling, ignorant
applicant on mere suspicion. The cunning Bap-
tiste lent himself to their feelings with the skill of
a demagogue, affecting a zeal equal to their own,
while, at the same time, he took care most to ex
cite their suspicions where there was the smallest
danger of their being rewarded with success.
Through this fiery ordeal one passed after another,
until most of the nameless vagabonds had been
found innocent, and the throng around the gate
was so far lessened as to allow a freer circulation
in the thoroughfare. The opening permitted the
venerable noble, who has already been presented
to the reader, to advance to the gate, accompanied
by the female, and closely followed by the menials.
The servitor of the police sajuted the stranger
with deference, for his calm exterior and imposing
presence were in singular contrast with the noisy

VOL. I. C



26 THE HEADSMAN.

declamation and rude deportment of the rabble
that had preceded,,

" I am Melchior de Willading, of Berne," said
the traveller, quietly offering the proofs of what
he said, with the ease of one sure of his impu
nity ; " this is my child my only child," the old
man repeated the latter words with melancholy
emphasis, " and these, that wear my livery, are
old and faithful followers of my house. We go
by the St. Bernard, to change the ruder side of
our Alps for that which is more grateful to the
weak to see if there be a sun in Italy that hath
warmth enough to revive this drooping flower,
and to cause it once more to raise its head joy
ously, as until lately, it did ever in its native halls."

The officer smiled and repeated his reverences,
always declining to receive the offered papers;
for the aged father indulged the overflowing of
his feelings in a manner that would have awakened
even duller sympathies.

" The lady has youth and a tender parent of her
side," he said ; " these are much when health fails
us."

" She is indeed too young to sink so early !"
returned the father, who had apparently forgotten
his immediate business, and was gazing with a
tearful eye at the faded but still eminently attrac
tive features of the young female, who rewarded
his solicitude with a look of love ; " but thou hast
not seen I am the man I represent myself to be."

" It is not necessary, noble baron; the city knows
of your presence, and I have it, in especial charge,
to do all that may be grateful to render the pas
sage through Geneva, of one so honored among
our allies, agreeable to his recollections."

" Thy city's courtesy is of known repute," said
the Baron de Willading, replacing his papers in
their usual envelope, and receiving the grace like



THE HEADSMAN. 27

one accustomed to honors of this sort : " art thou
a father?"

" Heaven has not been niggardly of gifts of this
nature : my table feeds eleven, besides those who
gave them being."

" Eleven ! The will of God is a fearful mys
tery ! And this thou seest is the sole hope of my
line ; the only heir that is left to the name and
lands of Willading ! Art thou at ease in thy con
dition?"

" There are those in our town who are less so,
with many thanks for the friendliness of the ques
tion."

A slight color suffused the face of Adelheid de
Willading, for so was the daughter of the Bernese
called, and she advanced a step nearer to the
officer.

" They who have so few at their own board,
need think of those who have so many," she said,
dropping a piece of gold into the hand of the Gen-
evese : then she added, in a voice scarce louder
than a whisper " If the young and innocent of
thy household can offer a prayer in the behalf of
a poor girl who has much need of aid, 'twill be
remembered of God, and it may serve to lighten
the grief of one who has the dread of being child
less."

" God bless thee, lady !" , said the officer, little
used to deal with such spirits, and touched by the
mild resignation and piety of the speaker, whose
simple but winning manner moved him nearly to
tears ; " all of my family, old as well as young,
shall bethink them of thee and thine."

Adelheid's cheek resumed its paleness, and she
quietly accompanied her father, as he slowly pro
ceeded towards the bark. A scene of this nature
did not fail to shake the pertinacity of those who
stood at watch near the gate. Of course they had



28 THE HEADSMAN.

nothing to say to any of the rank of Melchior de
Willading, who went into the bark without a ques
tion. The influence of beauty and station united
to so much simple grace as that shown by the fair
actor in the little incident we have just related,
was much too strong for the ill-trained feelings of
the Neapolitan and his companions. They not only
let all the menials pass unquestioned also, but it
was some little time before their vigilance resumed
its former truculence. The two or three travel
lers that succeeded had the benefit of this fortu
nate change of disposition.

The next who came to the gate was the young
soldier, whom the Baron de W illading had so of
ten addressed as Monsieur Sigismund. His papers
were regular, and no obstacle was offered to his
departure. It may be doubted how far this young
man would have been disposed to submit to these
extra-official inquiries of the three deputies of the
crowd, had there been a desire to urge them, for
he went towards the quay, with an eye that ex
pressed any other sensation than that of amity or
compliance. Respect, or a more equivocal feel
ing, proved his protection ; for none but the pil
grim, who displayed ultra-zeal in the pursuit of
his object, ventured so far as to hazard even a
smothered remark as he passed.

" There goes an arm and a sword that might
well shorten a Christian's days," said the dissolute
and shameless dealer in the church's abuses, " and
yet no one asks his name or calling !"

" Thou hadst better put the question thyself,"
returned the sneering Pippo, " since penitence is
thy trade. For myself, I am content with whirl
ing round at my own bidding, without taking a
hint from that young giant's arm."

The poor scholar and the burgher of Berne ap
peared to acquiesce in this opinion, and no more



THE HEADSMAN. 20

was said in the matter. In the mean while there
was another at the gate. The new applicant had
little in his exterior to renew the vigilance of the
superstitious trio. A quiet, meek-looking man,
seemingly of a middle condition in life, and of an
air altogether calm and unpretending, had sub
mitted his passport to the faithful guardian of the
city. The latter read the document, cast a quick
and inquiring glance at its owner, and returned
the paper in a way to show haste, and a desire to
be rid of him.

" It is well," he said; " thou canst go thy way."

" How now !" cried the Neapolitan, to whom
buffoonery was a congenial employment, as much
by natural disposition as by practice ; " How now !
have we Balthazar at last, in this bloody-minded
and fierce-looking traveller ?" As the speaker had
expected, this sally was rewarded by a general
laugh, and he was accordingly encouraged to pro
ceed. " Thou knowest our office, friend," added
the unfeeling mountebank, " and must show us thy
hands. None pass who bear the stain of blood !"

The traveller appeared staggered, for he was
plainly a man of retired and peaceable habits, who
had been thrown, by the chances of the road, in
contact with one only too practised in this un
feeling species of wit. He showed his open palm,
however, with a direct and confiding simplicity,
that drew a shout of merriment from all the by
standers.

" This will not do; soap, and ashes, and the tears
of victims, may have washed out the marks of
his work from Balthazar himself. The spots we
seek are on the soul, man, and we must look into
that, ere thou art permitted to make one in this
goodly company."

" Thou didst not question yonder young soldier
thus," returned the stranger, whose eye kindled,
C2



30 THE HEADSMAN.

as even the meek repel unprovoked outrage, though
his frame trembled violently at being subject to
open insults from men so rude and unprincipled ;
" thou didst not dare to question yonder young sol
dier thus !"

" By the prayers of San Gennaro ! which are
known to stop running and melted lava, I would
rather thou should'st undertake that office than I.
Yonder young soldier is an honorable decapitator,
and it is a pleasure to be his companion on a jour
ney ; for, no doubt, some six or eight of the saints
are speaking in his behalf daily. But he we seek
is the outcast of all, good or bad, whether in hea
ven or on earth, or in that other hot abode to which
he will surely be sent when his time shall come."

"And yet he does no more than execute the
law !"

" What is law to opinion, friend ? But go thy
way ; none suspect thee to be the redoubtable ene
my of our heads. Go thy way, for Heaven's sake,
and mutter thy prayers to be delivered from Bal
thazar's axe."

The countenance of the stranger worked, as if
he would have answered ; then suddenly changing
his purpose, he passed on, and instantly disappeared


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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 2 of 22)