James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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ficer perused the new instrument with deep atten
tion, and, when half through its contents, his eyes
left the page to become rivetted in respectful at
tention on the face of the expectant Italian. He
then read the passport to the end. Raising his cap
ceremoniously, the keeper of the gate left the pas
sage free, bowing with deep deference to the

" Had I sooner known this," he said, " there
would have been no delay. I hope your excel
lency will consider my ignorance ?"


" Name it not, friend. Thou hast done well ;
in proof of which I beg thy acceptance of a small
token of esteem."

The Genoese dropped a sequin into the hand of
the officer, passing him, at the same time, on his
way to the waterside. As the reluctance of the
other to receive gold came rather from a love of
duty than from any particular aversion to the
metal itself, this second offering met with a more
favorable reception than the first. The Baron de
Willading was not without surprise at the sudden
success of his friend, though he was far too pru
dent and well-bred to let his wonder be seen.

Every obstacle to the departure of the Winkel-
ried was now removed, and Baptiste and his crew
were soon actively engaged in loosening the sails
and in casting off the fasts. The movement of
the bark was at first slow and heavy, for the wind
was intercepted by the buildings of the town ; but,
as she receded from the shore, the canvass began
to flap and belly, and ere long it filled outward
with a report like that of a musket ; after which
the motion of the travellers began to bear some
relation to their nearly exhausted patience.

Soon after the party which had been so long
detained at the water-gate were embarked, Adel-
heid first learned the reason of the delay. She
had long known, from the mouth of her father, the
name and early history of the Signer Grimaldi, a
Genoese of illustrious family, who had been the
sworn friend and the comrade of Melchior de
Willading, when the latter pursued his career in
arms in the wars of Italy. These circumstances hav
ing passed long before her own birth, and even be
fore the marriage of her parents, and she being the
youngest and the only survivor of a numerous family
of children, they were, as respected herself, events
that already began to assume the hue of history.


She received the old man frankly and even with
affection, though in his yielding but still fine form,
she had quite as much difficulty as her father in
recognizing the young, gay, gallant, brilliant, and
handsome Gaetano Grimaldi that her imagination
had conceived from the verbal descriptions she
had so often heard, and from her fancy was still
wont to draw as he was painted in the affectionate
descriptions of her father. When he suddenly and
affectionately offered a kiss, the color flushed her
face, for no man but he to whom she owed her be
ing had ever before .taken that liberty ; but, after
an instant of virgin embarrassment, she laughed,
and blushingly presented her cheek to receive the

" The last tidings I had of thee, Melchior," said
the Italian, " was the letter sent by the Swiss Am
bassador, who took our city in his way as he travel
ed south, and which was written on the occasion
of the birth of this very girl."

" Not of this, dear friend, but of an elder sister,
who is, long since, a cherub in heaven. Thou
sees! the ninth precious gift that God bestowed,
and thou seest all that is now left of his bounty."

The countenance of the Signor Grimaldi lost
its joyousness, and a deep pause in the discourse
succeeded. They lived in an age when communi
cations between friends that were separated by
distance, and by the frontiers of different states,
were rare and uncertain. The fresh and novel
affections of marriage had first broken an inter
course that was continued, under such disadvan
tages as marked the period, long after their duties
called them different ways ; and time, with its
changes and the embarrassments of wars, had
finally destroyed nearly every link in the chain of
their correspondence. Each had, therefore, much
of a near and interesting character to communi-


cate to the Bother, and each dreaded to speak, lest
he might cause some wound, that was not perfect
ly healed, to bleed anew. The volume of matter
conveyed in the few words uttered by the Baron
de Willading, showed both in how many ways
they might inflict pain without intention, and how
necessary it was to be guarded in their discourse,
during the first days of their renewed intercourse.

"This girl at least is a treasure of itself, of
which I must envy thee the possession," the Sig-
nor Grimaldi at length rejoined.

The Swiss made one of those quick movements
which betray surprise, and it was very apparent,
that, just at the moment, he was more affected by
some interest of his friend, than by the apprehen
sions which usually beset him when any very di
rect allusion was made to his surviving child.

" Gaetano, thou hast a son !"

" He is lost hopelessly irretrievably lost at
least, to me !"

These were brief but painful glimpses into each
other's concerns, and another melancholy and em
barrassed pause followed. As the Baron de Wil
lading witnessed the sorrow that deeply shadowed
the face of the Genoese, he almost felt that Provi
dence, in summoning his own boys to early graves,
might have spared him the still bitterer grief of
mourning over the unworthiness of a living son.

" These are God's decrees, Melchior," the Italian
continued .of his own accord, " and we , as soldiers,
as men, and more than either, as Christians,
should know how to submit. The letter, of w r hich
I spoke, contained the last direct tidings that I re
ceived of thy welfare, though different travellers?
have mentioned thee as among the honored and
trusted of thy country, without descending to the
particulars of thy private life."

" The retirement of our mountains, and the little


intercourse of strangers with the Swiss, have de
nied me even this meagre satisfaction as respects
thee and thy fortunes. Since the especial courier
sent, according to our ancient agreement, to an
nounce "

The baron hesitated, for he felt he was again
touching on forbidden ground.

" To announce the birth of my unhappy boy,"
continued the Signor Grimaldi, firmly.

"To announce that much-wished-for event, I
have not had news of thee, except in a way so
vague, as to whet the desire to know more rather
than to appease the longings of love."

" These doubts are the penalties that friendship
pays to separation. We enlist the affections in
youth with the recklessness of hope, and, when
called different ways by duties or interest, we first
begin to perceive that the world is not the heaven
we thought it, but that each enjoyment has its
price, as^each grief has its solace. Thou hast car
ried arms since we were soldiers in company ?"

" As a Swiss only."

The answer drew a gleam of habitual humor
from the keen eye of the Italian, whose counte
nance was apt to change as rapidly as his thoughts.

" In what service ?"

" Nay, a truce to thy old pleasantries, good Gri
maldi and yet I should scarce love thee, as I do,
wert thou other than thou art ! I believe we come
at last to prize even the foibles of those we truly
esteem !"

" It must be so, young lady, or boyish follies
would long since have weaned thy father from me.
I have never spared him on the subjects of snows
and money, and yet he beareth with me marvel
lously. Well, strong love endure th much. Hath
the baron often spoken to thee of old Grimaldi


young Grimaldi, I should say and of the many
freaks of our thoughtless days ?"

"So much, Signore," returned Adelheid, who
had wept and smiled by turns during the interrupt
ed dialogue of her father and his friend, " that I
can repeat most of your youthful histories. The
castle of Willading is deep among the mountains,
and it is rare indeed for the foot of stranger to en
ter its gates. During the long evenings of our se
vere winters, I have listened as a daughter would
be apt to listen to the recital of most of your com
mon adventures, and in listening, I have not only
learned to know, but to esteem, one that is justly
so dear to my parent."

" I make no doubt, now, thou hast the history of
the plunge into the canal, by over-stooping to see
the Venetian beauty, at thy finger's ends ?"

" I do remember some such act of humid gal
lantry," returned Adelheid, laughing.

" Did thy father tell thee, child, of the manner in
which he bore me off in a noble rescue from a
deadly charge of the Imperial cavalry 1"

" I have heard some light allusion to such an
event, too," returned Adelheid, evidently trying
to recall the history of the affair, to her mind,
but "

" LVrht does he call it, and of small account ? I
wish never to see another as heavy ! This is the
impartiality of thy narratives, good Melchior, in
which a life preserved, wounds received, and a
charge to make the German quail, are set down as
matters to be touched with a light hand !"

" If I did thee this service, it was more than de
served by the manner in which, before Milan "

" Well, let it all pass together. We are old fools,
young lady, and should we get garrulous in each
other's praise, thou mightest mistake us for brag
garts; a character that, in truth, neither wholly



merits. Didst thou ever tell the girl, Melchior, of
our mad excursion into the forests of the Apennines,
in search of a Spanish lady that had fallen into the
hands of banditti ; and how we passed weeks on a
foolish enterprise of errantry, that had become use
less, by the timely application of a few sequins on
the part of the husband, even before we started
on the chivalrous, not to say silly, excursion?"

" Say chivalrous, but not silly," answered Adel-
heid, with the simplicity of a young and sincere
mind. " Of this adventure I have heard ; but to
me it has never seemed ridiculous. A generous
motive might well excuse an undertaking of less
favorable auspices."

" 'Tis fortunate," returned the Signor Grimaldi,
thoughtfully, " that, if youth and exaggerated opin
ions lead us to commit mad pranks under the name
of spirit and generosity, there are other youthful
and generons minds to reflect our sentiments and
to smile upon our folly."

" This is more like the wary grey-headed ex
pounder of wisdom than like the hot-headed Gae-
tano Grimaldi of old !" exclaimed the baron, though
he laughed while uttering the words, as if he felt,
at least a portion of the other's indifference to
those exaggerated feelings that had entered much
into the characters of both in youth. " The
time has been when the words, policy and calcu
lation, would have cost a companion thy favor !"

" 'Tis said that the prodigal of twenty makes
the rniser of seventy. It is certain that even our
southern sun does not warm the blood of threescore,
as suddenly as it heats that of one. But we will
not darken thy daughter's views of the future by a
picture too faithfully drawn, lest she become wise
before her time. I have often questioned, Mel
chior, which is the most precious gift of nature, a
warm fancy, or the colder powers of reason. But


if I must say which I most love, the point be
comes less difficult of decision. I would prefer each
in its season, or rather the two united, with a
gradual change in their influence. Let the youth
commence with the first in the ascendant, and close
with the last. He who begins life too cold a rea-
soner may end it a calculating egotist; and he
who is ruled solely by his imagination is in danger
of having his mind so ripened as to bring forth the
fruits of a visionary. Had it pleased heaven to
have left me the dear son I possessed for so short
a period, I would rather have seen him leaning to
the side of exaggeration in his estimate of men,
before experience came to chill his hopes, than to
see him scan his fellows with a too philosophical
eye in boyhood. 'Tis said we are but clay at the
best, but the ground, before it has been well tilled,
sends forth the plants that are most congenial to
its soil, and though it be of no great value, give
me the spontaneous and generous growth of the
weed, which proves the depth of the loam, rather
than a stinted imitation of that which cultivation
may, no doubt, render more useful if not more

The allusion to his lost son caused another cloud
to pass athwart the brow of the Genoese.

" Thou seest, Adelheid," he continued, after a
pause " for Adelheid will I call thee, in virtue of
a second father's rights that we are making our
folly respectable, at least to ourselves Master
Patron, thou hast a well-charged bark !"

" Thanks to your two honors ;" answered Bap-
tiste, who stood at the helm, near the group of
principal passengers. "These windfalls come
rarely to the poor, and we must make much of such
as offer. The games at Vevey have called every
craft on the Leman to the upper end of the lake,
and a little mother-wit led me to trust to the last


turn of the wheel, which, as you see, Signore, has
not come up a blank."

" Have many strangers passed by your city on
their way to these sports ?"

" Many hundreds, noble gentleman ; and report
speaks of thousands that are collecting at Vevey,
and in the neighboring villages. The country of
Vaud has not had a richer harvest from her games
this many a year."

It is fortunate, Melchior, that the desire to wit
ness these revels should have arisen in us at the
same moment. The hope of at last obtaining cer
tain tidings of thy welfare was the chief induce
ment that caused me to steal from Genoa, whither
I am compelled to return forthwith. There is
truly something providential in this meeting !"

" I so esteem it," returned the Baron de Willa-
ding ; " though the hope of soon embracing thee
was strongly alive in me. Thou art mistaken in
fancying that curiosity, or a wish to mingle with
the multitude at Vevey, has drawn me from my
castle. Italy was in my eye, as it has long been
in my heart."


" Nothing less. This fragile plant of the moun
tains has drooped of late in her native air, and
skilful advisers have counselled the sunny side of
the Alps as a shelter to revive her animation. I
have promised Roger de Blonay to pass a night or
two within his ancient walls, and then we are des
tined to seek the hospitality of the monks of St.
Bernard. Like thee, I had hoped this unusual sortie
from my hold might lead to intelligence touching
the fortunes of one I have *ever ceased to love."

The Signor Grimaldi turned a more scrutinizing
.look towards the face of their female companion.
Her gentle and winning beauty gave him pleasure;
but, with his attention quickened by what had just


fallen from her father, he traced, in silent pain, the
signs of that early fading which threatened to in
clude this last hope of his friend in the common
fate of the family. Disease had not, however, set
its seal on the sweet face of Adelheid, in a manner
to attract the notice of a common observer. The
lessening of the bloom, the mournful character of
a dove-like eye, and a look of thoughtfulness, on a
brow that he had ever known devoid of care and
open as day with youthful ingenuousness, were the
symptoms that first gave the alarm to her father,
whose previous losses, and whose solitariness, as
respects the ties of the world, had rendered him
keenly alive to impressions of such a nature. The
reflections excited by this examination brought
painful recollections to all, and it was long before
the discourse was renewed.

In the mean time, the Winkelried was not idle.
As the vessel receded from the cover of the build
ings and the hills, the force of the breeze was felt,
and her speed became quickened in proportion;
though the watermen of her crew often studied the
manner in which she dragged her way through the
element with a shake of the head, that was intend
ed to express their consciousness that too much
had been required of the craft. The cupidity of
Baptiste had indeed charged his good bark to the
uttermost. The water was nearly on a line with
the low stern, and when the bark had reached a
part of the lake where the waves were rolling with
some force, it was found that the vast weight was
too much to be lifted by the feeble and broken efforts
of these miniature seas. The consequences were,
however, more vexatious than alarming. A few
wet feet among the less quiet of the passengers,
with an occasional slapping of a sheet of water
against the gangways, and a consequent drift of
spray across the pile of human heads in the centre


of the bark, were all the immediate personal in-
con veniencies. Still unjustifiable greediness of gain,
had tempted the patron to commit the unseaman-
like fault of overloading his vessel. The decrease
of speed was another and a graver consequence
of his cupidity, since it might prevent their arrival
in port before the breeze had expended itself.

The lake of Geneva lies nearly in the form of a
crescent, stretching from the south-w r est towards
the north-east. Its northern, or the Swiss shore,
is chiefly what is called, in the language of the
country, a cote, or a declivity that admits of cul
tivation; and, with few exceptions, it has been,
since the earliest periods of history, planted with
the generous vine. Here the Romans had many
stations and posts, vestiges of which are still visi
ble. The confusion and the mixture of interests
that succeeded the fall of the empire, gave rise,
in the middle ages, to various baronial castles, ec
clesiastical towns, and towers of defence, which
still stand on the margin of this beautiful sheet of
water, or ornament the eminences a little inland.
At the time of which we write, the whole coast
of the Leman, if so imposing a word may be ap
plied to the shores of so small a body of water,
was in the possession of the three several states
of Geneva, Savoy, and Berne. The first con
sisted of a mere fragment of territory at the west
ern, or lower horn of the crescent; the second
occupied nearly the whole of the southern side of
the sheet, or the cavity of the half-moon ; while
the latter was mistress of the whole of the convex
border, and of the eastern horn. The shores of
Savoy are composed, with immaterial exceptions,
of advanced spurs of the high Alps, among which
towers Mont Blanc, like a sovereign seated in
majesty in the midst of a brilliant court, the rocks
frequently rising from the water's edge in perpen-


dicular masses. None of the lakes of this re
markable region possess a greater variety of
scenery than that of Geneva, which changes from
the smiling aspect of fertility and cultivation, at
its lower extremity, to the sublimity of a savage
and sublime nature at its upper. Vevey, the haven
for which the Winkelried was bound, lies at the
distance of three leagues from the head of the
lake, or the point where it receives the Rhone ;
and Geneva, the port from which the reader has
just seen her take her departure, is divided by that
river as it glances out of the blue basin of the Le-
man again, to traverse the fertile fields of France,
on its hurried course towards the distant Mediter

It is well known that the currents of air, on all
bodies of water that lie amid high and broken
mountains, are uncertain both as to their direction
and their force. This was the difficulty which
had most disturbed Baptiste during the delay of
the bark, for the experienced waterman \vell knew
it required the first and the freest effort of the wind
to " drive the breeze home," as it is called by sea
men, against the opposing currents that frequently
descend from the mountains which surrounded his
port. In addition to this difficulty, the shape of
the lake was another reason why the winds rarely
blow in the same direction over the whole of its
surface at the same time. Strong and continued
gales commonly force themselves down into the
deep basin, and push their \vay, against all resist
ance, into every crevice of the rocks ; but a power
less than this, rarely succeeds in favoring the bark
with the same breeze, from the entrance to the
outlet of the Rhone.

As a consequence of these peculiarities, the pas
sengers of the Winkelried had early evidence that
they had trifled too long with the fickle air. The


breeze carried them up abreast of Lausanne in
good season, but here the influence of the moun
tains began to impair its force, and, by the time
the sun had a little fallen towards the long, dark,
even line of the Jura, the good vessel was driven
to the usual expedients of jibing and hauling-in of

Baptiste had only to blame his own cupidity for
this disappointment ; and the consciousness that,
had he complied with the engagement, made on
the previous evening with the mass of his passen
gers, to depart with the dawn, he should now have
been in a situation to profit by any turn of fortune
that was likely to arise from the multitude of stran
gers who were in Vevey, rendered him moody.
As is usual with the headstrong and selfish when
they possess the power, others were made to pay
for the fault that he alone had committed, tils
men were vexed with contradictory and useless
orders ; the inferior passengers were accused of
constant neglect of his instructions, a fault which
he did not hesitate to affirm had caused the bark
to sail less swiftly than usual, and he no longer
even answered the occasional questions of those
for whom he felt habitual deference, with his for
mer respect and readiness.


Thrice to thine, and thrice to mine,
And thrice again, to make up nine.


BAFFLING and light airs kept the Winkelried a
long time nearly stationary, and it was only by
paying the greatest attention to trimming the sails,
and to all the little minutise of the waterman's art,


that the vessel was worked into the eastern horn
of the crescent, as the sun touched the hazy line
of the Jura. Here the wind failed entirely, the
surface of the lake becoming as glassy and smooth
as a mirror, and further motion, for the time at
least, was quite out of the question. The crew,
perceiving the hopelessness of their exertions, and
fatigued with the previous toil, threw themselves
among the boxes and bales, and endeavored to'
catch a little sleep, in anticipation of the north
breeze, which, at this season of the year, usually
blew from the shores of Vaud within an hour or
two of the disappearance of the sun.

The deck of the bark was now left to the un
disputed possession of her passengers. The day
had latterly been sultry, for the season, the even
water having cast back the hot rays in fierce re
flection, and, as evening drew on, a refreshing
coolness came to relieve the densely packed and
scorching travellers. The effect of such a change
was like that which would have been observed
among a flock of heavily fleeced sheep, which,
after gasping for breath beneath trees and hedges,
during the time of the sun's power, are seen scat
tering over their pastures to feed, or to play their
antics, as a grateful shade succeeds to cool their
panting sides.

Baptiste, as is but too apt to be the case with
men possessed of brief authority, during the day
had mercilessly played the tyrant with all the pas
sengers that were beneath the privileged degrees,
more than once threatening to come to extremi
ties with several, who had betrayed restlessness
under the restraint and suffering of their unaccus
tomed situation. Perhaps there is no man who
feels less for the complaints of the novice than
your weather-beaten and hardened mariner ; for,
familiarized to the suffering and confinement of a


vessel, and at liberty himself to seek relief in his
duties and avocations, he can scarcely enter into
the privations and embarrassments of those to
whom all is so new and painful. But, in the pa
tron of the Winkelried, there existed a natural in
difference to the grievances of others, and a nar
row selfishness of disposition, in aid of the opinions
which had been formed by a life of hardship and
exposure. He considered the vulgar passenger
as so much troublesome freight, which, while it
brought the advantage of a higher remuneration
than the same cubic measurement of inanimate
matter, had the unpleasant drawback of volition

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 4 of 22)