James Fenimore Cooper.

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

. (page 5 of 22)
Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 5 of 22)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and motion. With this general tendency to bully
and intimidate, the wary patron had, however,
made a silent exception in favor of the Italian,
who has introduced himself to the reader by the
ill-omened name of II Maledetto, or the accursed.
This formidable personage had enjoyed a perfect
immunity from the effects of Baptiste's tyranny,
which he had been able to establish by a very
simple and quiet process. Instead of cowering at
the fierce glance, or recoiling at the rude remon
strances of the churlish patron, he had chosen his
time, when the latter was in one of his hottest
ebullitions of anger, and when maledictions and
menaces flowed out of his mouth in torrents, coolly
to place himself on the very spot that the other
had proscribed, where he maintained his ground
with a quietness and composure which it might
have been difficult to say was more to be imputed
to extreme ignorance, or to immeasurable con
tempt. At least so reasoned the spectators ; some
thinking that the stranger meant to bring affairs to
a speedy issue by braving the patron's fury, and
others charitably inferring that he knew no better.
But thus did not Baptiste reason himself. He saw
by the calm eye and resolute demeanor of his pas-


senger that he himself, his pretended professional
difficulties, his captiousness, and his threats, were
alike despised ; and he shrank from collision with
such a spirit, precisely on the principle that the in
timidated among the rest of the travellers shrunk
from a contest with his own. From this moment
II Maledetto, or, as he was called by Baptiste him
self, who it would appear had some knowledge of
his person, Maso, became as completely the mas
ter of his own movements, as if he had been one
of the more honored in the stern of the bark, or
even her patron. He did not abuse his advantage,
however, rarely quitting the indicated station near
his own effects, where he had been mainly content
to repose in listless indolence, like the others, dozing
away the minutes.

But the scene was now altogether changed.
The instant the wrangling, discontented, and un
happy, because disappointed, patron, confessed his
inability to reach his port before the coming of
the expected night-breeze, and threw himself on
a bale, to conceal his dissatisfaction in sleep, head
arose after head from among the pile of freight,
and body after body followed the nobler member,
untij the whole mass was alive with human beings.
The invigorating coolness, the tranquil hour, the
prospect of a safe if not a speedy arrival, and the
relief from excessive weariness, produced a sud
den and agreeable re-action in the feelings of all.
Even the Baron de Willading and his friends, who
had shared in none of the especial privations just
named, joined in the general exhibition of satis
faction and good-will, rather aiding by their smiles
and affability, than restraining by their presence
the whims and jokes of the different individuals
among the motley group of their nameless com

The aspect and position of the bark, as well as


the prospects of those on board as they were con
nected with their arrival, now deserve to be more
particularly mentioned. The manner in which
the vessel was loaded to the water's edge has
already been more than once alluded to. The
whole of the centre of the broad deck, a portion
of the Winkelried which, owing to the over-hang
ing gangways, ^possessed, in common with all the
similar craft of the Leman, a greater width than
is usual in vessels of the same tonnage elsewhere,
was so cumbered with freight as barely to leave a
passage to the crew, forward and aft, by stepping
among the boxes and bales that were piled much
higher than their own heads. A little vacant
space was left near the stern, in which it was pos
sible for the party who occupied that part of the
deck to move, though in sufficiently straitened
limits, while the huge tiller played in its semicir
cle behind. At the other extremity, as is abso
lutely necessary in all navigation, the forecastle
was reasonably clear, though even this important
part of the deck was bristlirig with the flukes of
no less than nine anchors that lay in a row across
its breadth, the wild roadsteads of this end of
the lake rendering such a provision of ground-
tackle absolutely indispensable to the safety of
every craft that ventured into its eastern horn.
The effect of the whole, seen as it was in a state
of absolute rest, was to give to the Winkelried the
appearance of a small mound in the midst of the
water, that was crowded with human beings, and
seemingly so incorporated with the element on
which it floated as to grow out of its bosom ; an
image that the fancy was not slow to form, aided
as it was by the reflection of the mass that the
unruffled lake threw back from its mirror-like face,
as perfectly formed, as unwieldy, and nearly as
distinct, as the original. To this picture of a mo-


tionless rock, or island, the spars, sails, and high,
pointed beak, however, formed especial excep
tions. The yards hung, as seamen term it, a
cockbill, or in such negligent and picturesque po
sitions as an artist would most love to draw, while
the drapery of the canvass was suspended in grace
ful and spotless festoons, as it had fallenby chance, or
been cast carelessly from the handftof the boatmen.
The beak, or prow, rose in its sharp gallant stem,
resembling the stately neck of a swan, slightly
swerving from its direction, or inclining in a
nearly imperceptible sweep, as the hull yielded to
the secret influence of the varying currents.

When the teeming pile of freight, therefore,
began so freely to bring forth, and traveller after
traveller left his wallet, there was no great space
found in which they could stretch their wearied
limbs, or seek the change they needed. But suf
fering is a good preparative for pleasure, and
there is no sweetner of liberty like previous con
finement. Baptiste was no sooner heard to snore,
than the whole hummock of cargo was garnished
with upright bodies and stretching arms and legs,
as mice are known to steal from their holes during
the slumbers of their mortal enemy, the cat.

The reader has been made sufficiently acquaint
ed with the moral composition of the Winkelried's
living freight, in the opening chapter. As it had
undergone no other alteration than that produced
by lassitude, he is already prepared, therefore, to
renew his communications with its different mem
bers, all of whom were well disposed to show off
in their respective characters, the moment they
were favored with an opportunity. The mercu
rial Pippo, as he had been the most difficult to
restrain during the day, was the first to steal from
his lair, now that the Argus-like eyes of Baptiste
permitted the freedom, and the exhilarating cool-



ness of the sunset invited action. His success
emboldened others, and, ere long, the buffoon had
an admiring audience around him, that was well-
disposed to laugh at his witticisms, and to applaud
all his practical jokes. Gaining courage as he pro
ceeded, the buffoon gradually went from liberty to
liberty, until he was at length triumphantly estab
lished on what ffiight be termed an advanced spur
of the mountain formed by the tubs of Nicklaus
Wagner, in the regular exercise of his art ; while
a crowd of amused and gaping spectators clus
tered about him, peopling every eminence of the
height, and even invading the more privileged
deck in their eagerness to see and to admire.

Though frequently reduced by adverse fortune
to the lowest shifts of his calling, such as the
horse-play of Policinello, and the imitation of un
couth sounds, that resembled nothing either in hea
ven or earth, Pippo was a clever knave in his way,
and was quite equal to a displayof the higher branch
es of his art, whenever chance gave him an audience
capable of estimating his qualities. On the pre
sent occasion he was obliged to address himself
both to the polished and to the unpolished ; for the
proximity of their position, as well as a good-
natured readiness to lend themselves to fooleries
that were so agreeable to most around them, had
brought the more gentle portion of the passengers
within the influence of his wit.

" And now, illustrissimi signori," continued the
wily juggler, after having drawn a burst of ap
plause by one of his happiest hits in a sleight-of-
hand exhibition, " I come to the most imposing
and the most mysterious part of my knowledge
that of looking into the future, and of foretelling
events. If there are any among you who would
wish to know how long they are to eat the bread
of toil, let them come to me ; if there is a youth


that wishes to learn whether the heart of his mis
tress is made of flesh or of stone a maiden '_Hat
would see into a youth's faith and constancy,
while her long eyelashes cover her sight like a
modest silken veil or a noble, that would fain
have an insight into the movements of his rivals at
court or council, let them all put their questions to
Pippo, who has an answer ready for each, and an
answer so real, that the most expert among the
listeners will be ready to swear that a lie from his
mouth is worth more than truth from that of ano
ther man."

" He that would gain credit for knowledge of
the future," gravely observed the Signor Grimaldi,
who had listened to his countryman's voluble
eulogium on his own merits with a good-natured
laugh, " had best commence by showing his fa
miliarity with the past. Who and what is he that
speaks to thee, as a specimen of thy skill in sooth

" His eccellenza is more than he seems, less than
he deserves to be, and as much as any present.
He hath an old and a prized friend at his elbow ;
hath come because it was his pleasure, to witness
the games at Vevey will depart for the same
reason, when they are over, and will seek his home
at his leisure not like a fox stealing into his hole,
but as the stately ship sails, gallantly, and by the
light of the sun, into her haven."

" This will never do, Pippo," returned the good-
humoured old noble ; " at need I might equal this
myself. Thou shouldst relate that which is less
probable, while it is more true."

" Signore, we prophets like to sleep in whole
skins. If it be your eccellenza's pleasure and that
of your noble company to listen to the truly won
derful, I will tell some of these honest people mat
ters touching their own interests that they do not


know themselves, and yet it shall be as clear to
every body else as the sun in the heavens at noon

" Thou wilt, probably, tell them their faults ?"

" Your eccellenza has a right to my place, for
no prophet could have better divined my inten
tion ;" answere^l the laughing knave. " Come
nearer, friend," he added, beckoning to the Ber-
nois ; " thou art Nicklaus Wagner, a fat peasant
of the great canton, and a warm husbandman,
that fancies he has a title to the respect of all he
meets because some one among his fathers bought
a right in the biirgerschaft. Thou hast a large
stake in the Winkelried, and art at this moment
thinking what punishment is good , enough for
an impudent soothsayer who dares dive so un
ceremoniously into the secrets of so warm a
citizen, while all around thee wish thy cheeses had
never left the dairy, to the discomfort of our limbs
and to the great detriment of the bark's speed."

This sally at the expense of Nicklaus drew a
burst of merriment from the listeners ; for the sel
fish spirit he had manifested throughout the day
had won little favor with a majority of his fel
low travellers, who had all the generous propen
sities that are usually so abundant among those who
have little or nothing to bestow, and who were by
this time so well disposed to be merry that much
less would have served to stimulate their mirth.

"Wert thou the owner of this good freight,
friend, thou might find its presence less uncom
fortable than thou now appearest to think," return
ed the literal peasant, who had no humour for
raillery, and to whom a jest on the subject of
property had that sort of irreverend character that
popular opinion and holy sayings have attached to
waste. " The cheeses are well enough where they


find themselves; if thou dislikest their company
thou hast the alternative of the water."

" A truce between us, worshipful burgher ! and
let our skirmish end in something that may be use
ful to both. Thou hast that which would be ac
ceptable to me, and I have that which no owner of
cheeses would refuse, did he know the means by
which it might be come at honestly."

Nicklaus growled a few words of distrust and
indifference, but it was plain that the ambiguous
language of the juggler, as usual, had succeeded in
awakening interest. With the affectation of a
mind secretly conscious of its own infirmity, he
pretended to be indifferent to what the other pro
fessed a readiness to reveal, while with the rapa
city of a grasping spirit he betrayed a longing to
know more.

" First I will tell thee," said Pippo, with a pa
rade of good-nature, " that thou deservest to remain
in ignorance, as a punishment of thy pride and
want of faith ; but it is the failing of your prophet
to let that be known which he ought to conceal.
Thou flatterest thyself this is the fattest cargo of
cheeses that will cross the Swiss waters this sea
son, on their way to an Italian market? Shake
not thy head. 'Tis useless to deny it to a man of
my learning !"

" Nay, I know there are others as heavy, and, it
may be, as good ; but this has the advantage of be
ing the first, a circumstance that is certain to com
mand a price."

" Such is the blindness of one that nature sent
on earth to deal in cheeses !" The Herr Von Wil-
lading and his friends smiled among themselves at
the cool impudence of the mountebank "Thou
fanciest it is so ; and at this moment, a heavily la
den bark is driving before a favorable gale, near
the upper end of the lake of the four cantons, while


a long line of mules is waiting at Fluellen, to bear
its freight by the paths of the St. Gothard, to Mi-
lano and other rich markets of the south. In vir
tue of my secret power, 1 see that, in despite of all
thy cravings, it will arrive before thine."

Nicklaus fidgeted, for the graphic particularity
of Pippo almost led him to believe the augury
might be true.

" Had this bark sailed according to our cove
nant," he said, with a simplicity that betrayed his
uneasiness, " the beasts bespoken by me would now
be loading at Villeneuve ; and, if there be justice
in Vaud, I shall hold Baptiste responsible for any
disadvantage that may come of the neglect."

" Luckily, the generous Baptiste is asleep," re-
tuYned Pippo, " or we might hear objections to this
scheme. But, Signiori, I see you are satisfied with
this insight into the character of the warm peasant
of Berne, who, to say truth, has not much to con
ceal from us, and I will turn my searching looks
into the soul of this pious pilgrim, the reverend Con-
rado, whose unction may well go near to be a
leaven sufficient to lighten all in the bark of their
burthens of backslidings. . Thou carriest the peni
tence and prayers of many sinners, besides some
merchandise of this nature of thine own."

" I am bound to Loretto, with the mental offer
ings of certain Christians, who are too much occu
pied with their daily concerns to make the journey
in person," answered the pilgrim, who never abso
lutely threw aside his professional character, though
he cared in general so little about his hypocrisy
being known. " I am poor, and humble of appear
ance, but I have seen miracles in my day !"

" If any trust valuable offerings to thy keeping,
thou art a living miracle in thine own person ! I
can foresee that thou wilt bear nought else beside


" Nay, I pretend to deal in little more. The rich
and great, they that send vessels of gold and rich
dresses to Our Lady, employ their own favorite
messengers ; I am but the bearer of prayer and the
substitute for the penitent. The sufferings that I
undergo in the flesh are passed to the credit of my
employers, who get the benefit of my aches and
pains. I pretend to be no more than their go-be
tween, as yonder mariner has so lately called me/'

Pippo turned suddenly, following the direction
of the other's eye, and cast a glance at the self-
styled II Maledetto. This individual, of all the
common herd, had alone forborne to join the ga
ping and amused crowd near the juggler. His for
bearance, or want of curiosity, had left him in the
quiet possession of the little platform that was made
by the stowage of the boxes, and he now stood on
the summit of the pile, conspicuous by his situation
and mein, the latter being remarkable for its un
moved calmness, heightened by the understanding-
manner that is so peculiar to a seaman wheii

" Wilt thou have the. history of thy coming per
ils, friend mariner ?" cried the mercurial mounte
bank : " A journal of thy future risks and tempests
to amuse you in this calm ? Such a picture of sea-
monsters and of coral that grows in the ocean's
caverns, where mariners sleep, that shall give theo
the night-mare for months, and cause thee to dream
of wrecks and bleached bones for the rest of thy
life ? Thou hast only to wish it, to have the ad
ventures of thy next voyage laid before thee, like a

" Thou 'would'st gain more credit with me, as
one cunning in thy art, by giving the history of the

" The request is reasonable, and thou shalt have
it ; for I love the bold adventurer that trusts him-


self hardily upon the great deep ;" answered the
unabashed Pippo. " My first lessons in necroman
cy were received on the mole of Napoli, amid bur
ly Inglesi, straight-nosed Greeks, swarthy Sicilians,
and Maltese with spirits as fine as the gold of their
own chains. This was the school in which I
learned to know my art, and an apt scholar I pro
ved in all that touches the philosophy and humani
ty of my craft. Signore, thy palm 1"

Maso spread his sinewy hand in the direction of
the juggler, without descending from his elevation,
and in a way to show that, while he would not
balk the common humor, he was superior to the
gaping wonder and childish credulity of most of
those who watched the result. Pippo affected to
stretch out his neck, in order to study the hard and
dark lines, and then he resumed his revelations,
like one perfectly satisfied with what he had dis

" The hand is masculine, and has been familiar
with many friends in its time. It hath dealt with
steel, and cordage, and saltpetre, and most of all
with gold. Signori, the true seat of a man's di
gestion lies in the palm of his hand ; if that is
free to give and to receive, he will never have a
costive conscience, for of all damnable inconve
niences that afflict mortals, that of a conscience
that will neither give up nor take is the heaviest
curse. Let a man Jhave as much sagacity as shall
make him a cardinal, if it get entangled in the
meshes of one of your unyielding consciences, ye
shall see him a mendicant brother to his dying
day ; let him be born a prince with a close-ribbed
opinion of this sort, and he had better have been
born a beggar, for his reign will be like a river
from which the current sets outward, without any
return. No, my friends, a palm like this of Maso's
is a favorable sign, since it hinges on a pliant will.


that will open and shut like a well-formed eye, or
the jacket of a shell-fish, at its owner's pleasure.
Thou hast drawn near to many a port before this
of Vevey, after the sun has fallen low, Signor
Maso !"

" In that I have taken a seaman's chances
which depend more on the winds than on his own

" Thou esteemest the bottom of the craft in-
which thou art required to sail, as far more im
portant than her ancient. Thou hast an eye for
a keel, but none for color ; unless, indeed, as it
may happen to be convenient to seem that thou
art not."

" Nay, Master Soothsayer, I suspect thee to be
an officer of some of the Holy Brotherhoods, sent
in this guise to question us poor travellers to our
ruin !" answered Maso. " I am, what thou seest r
but a poor mariner that hath no better bark under
him than this of Baptiste, and on a sea no larger
than a Swiss lake."

" Shrewdly observed," said Pippo, winking to
those near him, though he so little liked the eye
and bearing of the other that he was not sorry to
turn to some new subject. " But what matters it,
Signori, to be speaking of the qualities of men I
We are all alike, honorable, merciful, more dis
posed to help others than to help ourselves, and so
little given to selfishness, that nature has been
obliged to supply every mother's son of us with a
sort of goad, that shall be constantly pricking us
on to look after our own interests. Here are ani
mals whose dispositions are less understood, and
we will bestow a useful minute in examining their
qualities. Reverend Augustine, this mastiff of
thine is named Uberto ?"

" He is known by that appellation throughout
the cantons and their allies. The fame of the dog


reaches even to Turin and to most of the towns in
the plain of Lombardy."

" Now, Signori, you perceive that this is but a
secondary creature in the scale of animals. Do
him good and he will be grateful ; do him harm,
and he will forgive. Feed him, and he is satisfied.
He will travel the paths of the St. Bernard, night
and day, to do credit to his training, and when
the toil is ended, all he asks is just as much meat
as will keep the breath within his ribs. Had
heaven given Uberto a conscience and greater
wit, the first might have shown him the impiety
of working for travellers on holy days and festas.
while the latter would be apt to say he was a fool
for troubling himself about the safety of others at

" And yet his masters, the good Augustines them
selves, do not hold so selfish a creed !" observed

" Ah ! they have heaven in view ! I cry the
reverend Augustine's pardon but, lady, the dif
ference is in the length of the calculation. Woe 's
me, brethren ; I would that my parents had edu
cated me for a bishop, or a viceroy, or some other
modest employment, that this learnel^ craft of
mine might have fallen into better hands ! Ye
would lose in instruction, but I should be removed
from the giddy heights of ambition, and die at last,
with some hopes of being a saint. Fair lady, thou
travellest on a bootless errand, if I know the rea
son that tempts thee to cross the Alps at this late
season of the year."

This sudden address caused both Adelheid and
her father to start, for, in despite of $ride and the
force of reason, it is seldom that we can complete
ly redeem our opinions from the shackles of super
stition, and that dread of the unseen future which
appears to have been entailed upon our nature, as


a ceaseless monitor of the eternal state of being to
which all are hastening, with steps so noiseless and
yet so sure. The countenance of the maiden
changed, and she turned a quick, involuntary glance
at her anxious parent, as if to note the effect of
this rude announcement on him before she answer

;- " I go in quest of the blessing, health," she said,
' and I should be sorry to think thy prognostic
likely to be realized. With youth, a good consti
tution, and tender friends of my side, there is rea
son to think thou mayest, in this at least, prove a
false prophet."

" Lady, hast thou hope ?"

Pippo ventured this question as he-had adventured
his opinion ; that is to say, recklessly, pretendingly,
and with great indifference to any effect it might
have, except as it was likely to establish his repu
tation with the crowd. Still, it would seem, that
by one of those singular coincidences that are
hourly occurring in real life, he had unwittingly
touched a sensitive chord in the system of his fair
fellow-traveller. Her eyes sank to the deck at this
abrupt question, the color again stole to her pol
ished temples, and the least practised in the emo
tions of the sex might have detected painful em
barrassment in her mein. She was, however,
spared the awkwardness of a reply, by the unexpect
ed and prompt interference of Maso.

" Hope is the last of our friends to prove re
creant," said this mariner, " else would the cases
of many in company be bad enough, thine own

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22

Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 5 of 22)