James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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included, Pippo ; for, judging by the outward signs,
the Swabian campaign has not been rich in spoils."

" Providence has ordered the harvests of wit
much as it has ordered the harvests of the field,"
returned the juggler, who felt the sarcasm of the
other's remark with all the poignancy that it could



72 THE HEADSMAN.

derive from truth ; since, to expose his real situa
tion, he was absolutely indebted to an extraordi
nary access of generosity in Baptiste, for his very
passage across the Lernan. " One year, thou shalt
find the vineyard dripping liquors precious as dia
monds, while, the next, barrenness shall make it
its seat. To-day the peasant will complain that
poverty prevents him from building the covering
necessary to house his crops, while to-morrow he
will be heard groaning over empty garners. Abun
dance and famine travel the earth hard upon each
other's heels, and it is not surprising that he who
lives by his wits should sometimes fail of his har
vest, as well as he who lives by his hands."

" If constant custom can secure success, the pious
Conrad should be prosperous," answered Maso,
" for, of all machinery, that of sin is the least sel
dom idle. His trade at least can never fail for
want of employers."

" Thou hast it, Signer Maso ; and it is for this
especial reason that I wish my parents had edu
cated me for a bishoprick. He that is charged
with reproving his fellow creatures for their vices
need never know an idle hour."

" Thou dost not understand what thou sayest," put
in Conrad ; " love for the saints has much fallen
away since my youth, and where there is one
Christian ready now to bestow his silver, in order
to get the blessing of some favorite shrine, there
were then ten. I have heard the elders of us pil
grims say, that, fifty years since, 'twas a pleasure
to bear the sins of a whole parish, for ours is a
business in which the load does not so much depend
on the amount as the quality ; and, in their time,
there were willing offerings, frank confessions,
and generous consideration for those who under
took the toil."

"In such, a trade, the less thou hast to answer



THE HEADSMAN. 73

for, in behalf of others, the more will pass to thy
credit on the score of thine own backslidings,"
pithily remarked Nicklaus Wagner, who was a stur
dy Protestant, and apt enough at levelling these
side-hits at those who professed a faith, obnoxious
to the attacks of all who dissented from the opinions
and the spiritual domination of Rome.

But Conrad was a rare specimen of what may
be effected by training and well-rooted prejudices.
In presenting this man to the mind of the reader,
we have no intention to impugn the doctrines of the
particular church to which he belonged, but sim
ply to show, as the truth will fully warrant, to what
a pass of flagrant and impudent pretension the
qualities of man, unbridled by the wholesome cor
rective of a sound and healthful opinion, was ca
pable of conducting abuses on the most solemn
and gravest subjects. In that age usages prevail
ed, and were so familiar to the minds of the actors
as to excite neither reflection nor comment, which
would now lead to revolutions, and a general rising
in defence of principles which are held to be clear
as the air we breathe. Though we entertain no
doubt of the existence of that truth which pervades
the universe, and to which all things tend, we
think the world, in its practices, its theories, and
its conventional standards of right and wrong, is
in a condition of constant change, which it should
be the business of the wise and good to favor, so
long as care is had that the advantage is not bought
by a re-action of evil, that shall more than prove
its counterpoise. Conrad was one of the lowest
class of those fungi that grow out of the decayed
parts of the moral, as their more material types
prove the rottenness of the vegetable, world; and
the probability of the truth of the portraiture is not
to be loosely denied, without mature reflection on
the similar anomalies that are yet to be found on

VOL. I. G



74 THE HEADSMAN.

every side of us, or without studying the history of
the abuses which then disgraced Christianity, and
which, in truth, became so intolerable in their
character, and so hideous in their features, as to
be the chief influencing cause to bring about their
own annihilation.

Pippo, who had that useful tact which enables a
man to measure his own estimation with others,
was not slow to perceive that the more enlightened
part of his audience began to tire of this pretend
ing buffoonery. Resorting to a happy subterfuge,
by means of one of his sleight-of-hand expedients,
he succeeded in transferring the whole of that por
tion of the spectators who still found amusement
in his jugglery, to the other end of the vessel,
where they established themselves among the an
chors, ready as ever to swallow an aliment, that
seems to find an unextinguishable appetite for its
reception among the vulgar. Here he continued
his exhibition, now moralizing in the quaint and
often in the pithy manner, which renders the south
ern buffoon so much superior to his duller compe
titor of the north, and uttering a wild jumble of
wholesome truths, loose morality, and witty inuen-
does, the latter of which never failed to extort roars
of laughter from all but those who happened to be
their luckless subjects.

Once or twice Baptiste raised his head, and stared
about him with drowsy eyes, but, satisfied there
was nothing to be done in *the way of forcing the
vessel ahead, he resumed his nap, without inter
fering in the pastime of those whom he had hith
erto seemed to take pleasure in annoying. Left
entirely to themselves, therefore, the crowd on
the forecastle represented one of those every-day
but profitable pictures of life, which abound under
our eyes, but which, though they are pregnant with
instruction, are treated with the indifference that



THE HEADSMAN. 75

would seem to be the inevitable consequence of
familiarity.

The crowded and overloaded bark might have
been compared to the vessel of human life, which
floats at all times subject to the thousand accidents
of a delicate and complicated machinery ; the lake,
so smooth and alluring in its present tranquillity,
but so capable of lashing its iron-bound coasts with
fury, to a treacherous world, whose smile is al
most always as dangerous as its frown; and, to
complete the picture, the idle, laughing, thought
less, and yet inflammable group that surrounded
the buffoon, to the unaccountable medley of human
sympathies, of sudden and fierce passions, of fun
and frolic, so inexplicably mingled with the gross
est egotism that enters into the heart of man: in
a word, to so much that is beautiful and divine,
with so much that would seem to be derived di
rectly from the demons, a compound which com
poses this mysterious and dread state of being, and
which we are taught, by reason and revelation,
is only a preparation for another still more incom
prehensible and wonderful.



CHAPTER V.

" How like a fawning publican he looks !"

SHYLOCK.

THE change of the juggler's scene of action left
the party in the stern of the barge, in quiet posses
sion of their portion of the vessel. Baptiste and
his boatmen still slept among the boxes; Maso
continued to pace his elevated platform above their
heads ; and the meek-looking stranger, whose en-



76 THE HEADSMAN.

trance into the barge had drawn so many witticisms
from Pippo, sate a little apart, silent, furtively ob
servant, and retiring, in the identical spot he had
occupied throughout the day. With these excep
tions, the whole of the rest of the travellers were
crowding around the person of the mountebank.
Perhaps we have not done well, however, in class
ing either of the two just named with the more
common herd, for there were strong points of
difference to distinguish both from most of their
companions.

The exterior and the personal appointments of
the unknown traveller, who had shrunk so sensi
tively before the hits of the Neapolitan, was greatly
superior to those of any other in the bark beneath
the degree of the gentle, not even excepting those
of the warm peasant Nicklaus Wagner, the owner
of so large a portion of the freight. There was a
decency of air that commanded more respect than
it was then usual to yield to the nameless, a quiet
ness of demeanor that denoted reflection and the
habit of self-study and self-correction, together with
a deference to others that was well adapted to gain
friends. In the midst of the noisy, clamorous
merriment of all around him, his restrained and
rebuked manner had won upon the favor of the
more privileged, who had unavoidably noticed the
difference, and had prepared the way to a more
frank communication between the party of the no
ble, and one who, if not their equal in the usual
points of worldly distinction, was greatly superior
to those among whom he had been accidentally
cast by the chances of his journey. Not so with
Maso ; he, apparently, had little in common with
the unobtruding and silent being that sat so near
his path, in the short turns he was making to and
fro across the pile of freight. The mariner was
much the younger, his years scarcely reaching



THE HEADSMAN. 77

thirty, while the head of the unknown traveller was
already beginning to be sprinkled with gray. The
walk, attitudes, and gestures, of the former, were
also those of a man confident of himself, a little
addicted to be indifferent to others, and far more
disposed to lead than to follow. These are quali
ties that it may be thought his present situation
was scarcely suited to discover, but they had been
made sufficiently apparent, by the cool, calculating
looks he threw, from time to time, at the manoeu
vres commanded by Baptiste, the expressive sneer
with which he criticised his decisions, and a few
biting remarks which had escaped him in the course
of the day, and which had conveyed any thing but
compliments to the nautical skill of the patron and
his fresh-water followers. Still there were signs
of better stuff in this suspicious-looking person than
are usually seen about men, whose attire, pursuits
and situation, are so indicative of the world's
pressing hard upon their principles, as happened to
be the fact with this poor and unknown seaman.
Though ill clad, and wearing about him the general
tokens of a vagrant life, and that loose connexion
with society that is usually taken as sufficient evi
dence- of one's demerits, his countenance occasion
ally denoted thought, and, during the day, his eye
had frequently wandered towards the group of his
more intelligent fellow-passengers, as if he found
subjects of greater interest in their discourse, than
in the rude pleasantries and practical jokes of those
nearer his person.

The high-bred are always courteous, except in
cases in which presumption repels civility ; for they
who are accustomed to the privileges of station,
think far less of their immunities, than they, who,
by being excluded from the fancied advantages,
are apt to exaggerate a superiority that a short
experience would show becomes of very questiona-
G2



78 THE HEADSMAN.

ble value in the possession. Without this equitable
provision of Providence, the laws of civilized so
ciety would become truly intolerable, for, if peace
of mind, pleasure, and what is usually termed
happiness, were the exclusive enjoyment of those
who are rich and honoured, there would, indeed,
be so crying an injustice in their present ordinances
as could not long withstand the united assaults of
reason and justice. But, happily for the relief of
the less gifted and the peace of the world, the fact
is very different. Wealth has its peculiar woes ;
honors and privileges pall in the use ; and, per
haps, as a rule, there is less of that regulated con
tentment, which forms the nearest approach to the
condition of the blessed of which this unquiet state
of being is susceptible, among those who are
usually the most envied by their fellow-creatures,
than in any other of the numerous gradations into
which the social scale has been divided. He who
reads our present legend with the eyes that we
could wish, will find in its moral the illustration of
this truth ; for, if it is our intention to delineate
some of the wrongs that spring from the abuses of
the privileged and powerful, we hope equally to
show how completely they fall short of their ob
ject, by failing to confer that exclusive happiness
which is the goal that all struggle to attain.

Neither the Baron de Willading, nor his noble
friend, the Genoese, though educated in the opin
ions of their caste, and necessarily under the in
fluence of the prejudices of the age, was addicted
to the insolence of vulgar pride. Their habits
had revolted at the coarseness of the majority of
the travellers, and they were glad to be rid of
them by the expedient of Pippo; but no sooner
did the modest, decent air of the stranger who re
mained, make itself apparent, than they felt a desire
to compensate him for the privations he had already



THE HEADSMAN. 79

undergone, by showing the civilities that their
own rank rendered so easy and usually so grate
ful. With this view, then, as soon as the noisy
troupe had departed, the Signor Grimaldi raised
his beaver with that discreet and imposing polite
ness which equally attracts and repels, and, ad
dressing the solitary stranger, he invited him to
descend, and stretch his legs on the part of the
deck which had hitherto been considered exclu
sively devoted to the use of his own party. The
other started, reddened, and looked like one who
doubted whether he had heard aright.

" These noble gentlemen would be glad if you
would come down, and take advantage of this
opportunity to relieve your limbs ;" said the young
Sigismund, raising his own athletic arm towards
the stranger, to offer its assistance in helping him
to reach the deck.

Still the unknown traveller hesitated, in the
manner of one who fears he might overstep dis
cretion, by obtruding beyond the limits imposed
by modesty. He glanced furtively upwards at
the place where Maso had posted himself, and
muttered something of an intention to profit by its
present nakedness.

" It has an occupant who does not seem dis
posed to admit another," said Sigismund, smiling ;
" your mariner has a self-possession when afloat,
that usually gives him the same superiority that
the well-armed swasher has among the timid in
the street. You would do well, then, to accept
the offer of the noble Genoese."

The stranger, who had once or twice been
called rather ostentatiously by Baptiste the Herr
Miiller, during the day, as if the patron were dis
posed to let his hearers know that he had those
who at least bore creditable names, even among
his ordinary passengers, no longer delayed. He



80 THE HEADSMAN.

came down from his seat, and moved about the
deck in his usual, quiet, subdued manner, but in a
way to show that he found a very sensible and
grateful relief in being permitted to make the
change. Sigismund was rewarded for this act
of good-nature by a smile from Adelheid, who
thought his warm interference in behalf of one,
seemingly so much his inferior, did no discredit
to his rank. It is possible that the youthful sol
dier had some secret sentiment of the advantage
he derived from his kind interest in the stranger,
for his brow flushed, and he looked more satisfied
with himself, after this little office of humanity
had been performed.

" You are better among us here," the baron
kindly observed, when the Herr Mu'ller was fairly
established in his new situation, " than among the
freight of the honest Nicklaus Wagner, who,
Heaven help the worthy peasant ! has loaded us
fairly to the water's edge, with the notable indus
try of his dairy people. I like to witness the
prosperity of our burghers, but it would have
been better for us travellers, at least, had there
been less of the wealth of honest Nicklaus in our
company. Are you of Berne, or of Zurich ?"

" Of Berne, Herr Baron."

" I might have guessed that by finding you on
the Genfer See, instead of the Wallenstatter.
There are many of the Mullers in the Emmen
Thai?"

" The Herr is right ; the name is frequent, both
in that valley, and in Entlibuch."

" It is a frequent appellation among us of the
Teutonick stock. I had many Mullers in my
company, Gaetano, when we lay before Mantua.
I remember that two of the brave fellows were
buried in the marshes of that low country; for
the fever helped the enemy as much as the sword,



THE HEADSMAN. 81

in the life-wasting campaign of the year we be
sieged the place."

The more observant Italian saw that the stranger
was distressed by the personal nature of the con
versation, and, while he quietly assented to his
friend's remark, he took occasion to give it a new
direction.

" You travel, like ourselves, Signore, to get a
look at these far-famed revels of the Vevasians ?"

" That, and affairs, have brought me into this
honorable company ;" answered the Herr Muller,
whom no kindness of tone, however, could win
from his timid and subdued manner of speaking.
" And thou, father," turning to the Augustine,
"art journeying towards thy mountain residence,
after a visit of love to the valleys and their
people ?"

The monk of St. Bernard assented to the truth
of this remark, explaining the manner in which
his community were accustomed annually to ap
peal to the liberality of the generous in Switzer
land, in behalf of an institution that was founded
in the interest of humanity, without reference to
distinction of faith.

" 'Tis a blessed brotherhood," answered the
Genoese, crossing himself, perhaps as much from
habit as from devotion, " and the traveller need
wish it well. I have never shared of your
hospitality, but all report speaks fairly of it, and
the' title of a brother of San Bernardo, should
prove a passport to the favor of every Christian."

" Signore," said Maso, stopping suddenly, and
taking his part uninvited in the discourse, and yet
in a way to avoid the appearance of an imperti
nent interference, " none know this better than I !
A wanderer these many years, I have often seen
the stony roof of the hospice with as much plea
sure as I have ever beheld the entrance of my



82 THE HEADSMAN.

haven, when an adverse gale was pressing
against my canvass. Honor and a rich quele to
the clavier of the convent, therefore, for it is
bringing succor to the poor and rest to the
weary !"

As he uttered this opinion, Maso decorously
raised his cap, and pursued his straitened walk
with the industry of a caged tiger. It was so un
usual for one of his condition to obtrude on the
discourse of the fair and noble, that the party ex
changed looks of surprise ; but, the Signor Gri-
maldi, more accustomed than most of his friends
to the frank deportment and bold speech of mari
ners, from having dwelt long on the coast of the
Mediterranean, felt disposed rather to humor than
to repulse this disposition to talk.

" Thou art a Genoese, by thy dialect," he said,
assuming as a matter of course the right to ques
tion one of years so much fewer, and of a condi
tion so much inferior to his own.

" Signore," returned Maso, uncovering himself
again, though his manner betrayed profound per
sonal respect rather than the deference of the vul
gar, " I was born in the city of palaces, though
it was my fortune first to see the light beneath a
humble roof. The poorest of us are proud of the
splendor of Genova la Superba, even if its glory
has come from our own groans."

The Signor Grimaldi frowned. But, ashamed
to permit himself to be disturbed by an allusion so
vague, and perhaps so unpremeditated, and more
especially coming as it did from so insignificant a
source, his brow regained its expression of ha
bitual composure.

An instant of reflection, told him it would be
in better taste to continue the conversation, than
churlishly to cut it short for so light a cause.

" Thou art too young to have had much con-



THE HEADSMAN. 83

nexion, either in advantage or in suffering," he
rejoined, " with the erection of the gorgeous dwell
ings to which thou alludest."

" This is true, Signore ; except as one is the
better or worse for those who have gone before
him. I am what I seem, more by the acts of
others than by any faults of my own. I envy not
the rich or great, however ; for one that has seen
as much of life as I, knows the difference between
the gay colors of the garment, and that of the
shrivelled and diseased skin it conceals. We make
our feluccas glittering and fine with paint, when
their timbers work the most, and when the treach
erous planks are ready to let in the sea to drown
us."

" Thou hast the philosophy of it, young man,
and hast uttered a biting truth, for those who waste
their prime in chasing a phantom. Thou hast well
bethought thee of these matters, for, if content
with thy lot, no palace of our city would make
thee happier."

" If, Signore, is a meaning word ! Content is
like the north-star we seamen steer for it, while
none can ever reach it !"

" Am I then deceived in thee, after all ? Is thy
seeming moderation only affected; ajid would'st
thou be the patron of the bark in which fortune
hath made thee only a passenger ?"

" And a bad fortune it hath proved," returned
Maso, laughing. " We appear fated to pass the
night in it, for, so far from seeing any signs of
this land-breeze of which Baptiste has so confi
dently spoken, the air seems to have gone to sleep
as well as the crew. Thou art accustomed to this
climate, reverend Augustine ; is it usual to see so
deep a calm on the Leman at this late season ?"

A question like this was well adapted to effect
the speaker's wish to change the discourse, for it



84 THE HEADSMAN.

very naturally directed the attention of all present
from a subject that was rather tolerated from idle
ness than interesting in itself, to the different natu
ral phenomena by which they were surrounded.
The sun-set had now fairly passed, and the trav
ellers were at the witching moment that precedes
the final disappearance of the day. A calm so
deep rested on the limpid lake, that it was not easy
to distinguish the line which separated the two
elements, in those places where the blue of the
land was confounded with the well-known and pe
culiar color of the Leman.

The precise position of the Winkelried was near
mid-way between the shores of Vaud and those
of Savoy, though nearer to the first than to the
last. Not another sail was visible on the whole
of the watery expanse, with the exception of one
that hung lazily from its yard, in a small bark that
was pulling towards St. Gingoulph, bearing Sa
voyards returning to their homes from the other
side of the lake, and which, in that delusive land
scape, appeared to the eye to be within a stone's-
throw of the base of the mountain, though, in
truth, still a weary row from the land.

Nature has spread her work on a scale so mag
nificent in this sublime region that ocular decep
tions of this character abound, and it requires
time and practice to judge of those measurements
which have been rendered familiar in other scenes.
In like manner to the bark under the rocks of Sa
voy, there lay another, a heavy-moulded boat,
nearly in a line with Villeneuve, which seemed to
float in the air instead of its proper element, and
whose oars were seen to rise and fall beneath a
high mound, that was rendered shapeless by re
fraction. This was a craft, bearing hay from the
meadows at the mouth of the Rhone to their pro
prietors in the villages of the Swiss coast. A few



THE HEADSMAN. 85

light boats were pulling about in front of the town
of Vevey, and a forest of low masts and latine
yards, seen in the hundred picturesque attitudes
peculiar to the rig, crowded the wild anchorage
that is termed its port.

An air-line drawn from St. Saphorin to Meil-
lerie, would have passed between the spars of the
Winkelried, her distance from her haven, conse
quently, a little exceeded a marine league. This
space might readily have been conquered in an
hour or two by means of the sweeps, but for the
lumbered condition of the decks, which would have
rendered their use difficult, and the unusual draught
of the bark, which would have caused the exer
tion to be painful. As it has beei^seen, Baptiste
preferred waiting for the arrival of the night-
breeze to having recourse to an expedient so toil
some and slow.

We have already said, that the point just de


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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 6 of 22)