James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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has its pleasures !"

Maso laid his hand upon the shoulder of the stu
dent, which he pressed with the force of a vice.

" Thou art right," he said, moodily ; " make the
most of thy friendships, and, if there are any
that love thee, tighten the knot by all the means
thou hast. None know the curse of being deserted
in this selfish and cruel battle of interest better
than I ! Be not ashamed of thy star, but gaze at
it till thy eye-strings crack. See the bright eyes
of her that loves thee in its twinkling, her constancy
in its lustre, and her melancholy in its sadness ;
lose not the happy moments, for there will soon
be a dark curtain to shut out its view."

The Westphalian was struck with the singular
energy as well as with the poetry of the mariner,
and he distrusted the obvious allusion to the clouds.



100 THE HEADSMAN".

which were, in fact, fast covering the vault above
their heads.

" Dost thou like the night ?" he demanded, turn
ing from his star in doubt.

" It might be fairer. This is a wild region, and
your cold Swiss lakes sometimes become too hot
for the stoutest seaman's heart. Gaze at thy star,
young man, while thou mayest, and bethink thee
of the maiden thou lovest and of all her kindness ;
we are on a crazy water, and pleasant thoughts
should not be lightly thrown away."

Maso walked away, leaving the student alarmed,
uneasy at he knew not what, and yet bent with
childish eagerness on regarding the little luminary
that occasionally was still seen wading among
volumes of vapor. At this instant, a shout of
unmeaning, clamorous merriment arose on the
forecastle.

II Maledetto did not remain any longer on the
pile, but abandoning it to the new occupant, he
descended among the silent, thoughtful party who
were in possession of the cleared space near the
stern. It was now so dark that some little at
tention was necessary to distinguish faces, even
at trifling distances. But, by means of moving
among these privileged persons with great cool
ness and seeming indifference, he soon succeeded
in placing himself near the Genoese and the Au
gustine.

" Signore," he said, in Italian, raising his cap
to the former with the same marked respect as
before, though it was evidently no easy matter to
impress him with the deference that the obscure
usually feel for the great " this is likely to prove
an unfortunate end to a voyage that began with
so fair appearances. I could wish that your ec-
cellenza, with all this noble and fair company, was
safely landed in the town of Vevey."



THE HEADSMAN 1 . 101

" Dost them mean that we have cause to fear
more than delay ?"

" Signore, the mariner's life is one of unequal
chances : now he floats in a lazy calm, and pres
ently he is tossed between heaven and earth, in a
way to make the stoutest heart sick. My know
ledge of these waters is not great, but there are
signs making themselves seen in the sky, here
above the peak that lies in the direction of Mont
Blanc, that would trouble me, were this our own
blue but treacherous Mediterranean."

" What thinkest thou of this, father ; a long
residence in the Alps must have given thee some
insight into their storms ?"

The Augustine had been grave and thoughtful
from the moment that he ceased to converse with
Balthazar. He, too, had been struck with the
omens, and, long used to study the changes of the
weather, in a region where the elements sometimes
work their will on a scale commensurate with the
grandeur of the mountains, his thoughts had been
anxiously recurring to the comforts and security
of some of those hospitable roofs in the city to
which they were bound, and which were always
ready to receive the clavier of St. Bernard, in re
turn for the services and self-denial of his bro
therhood.

" With Maso, I could wish we were safely land
ed," answered the good canon ; " the intense heat
that a day like this creates in our valleys and on
the lakes so weakens the sub-strata, or foundations
of air, that the cold masses which collect around
the glaciers sometimes descend like avalanches
from their heights, to fill the vacuum. The shock
is fearful, even to those who meet it in the glens
and among the rocks, but the plunge of such a
column of air upon one of the lakes is certain to be
terrible."

I 2



102 THE HEADSMAN.

" And thou thinkest there is danger of one of
these phenomena at present ?"

" I know not ; but I would we were housed !
That unnatural light above, and this deep tranquil
lity below, which surpasses an ordinary calm
have already driven me to my aves."

" The reverend Augustine speaks like a book
man, and one who has passed his time, up in his
mountain-convent, in study and reflection," rejoin
ed Maso ; " whereas the reasons I have to offer
savor more of the seaman's practice. A calm
like this, will be followed, sooner or later, by a
commotion in the atmosphere. I like not the ab
sence of the breeze from the land, on which Bap-
tiste counted so surely, and, taking that symptom
with the signs of yonder hot sky, I look soon to
see this extraordinary quiet displaced by some vi
olent struggle among the winds. Nettuno, too,
my faithful dog, has given notice, by the manner
in which he snuffs the air, that we are not to pass
the night in this motionless condition."

" I had hoped ere this to be quietly in our ha
ven. What means yonder bright light? Is it a
star in the heavens, or does it merely lie against
the side of the huge mountain ?"

" There shines old Roger de Blonay !" cried
the baron, heartily ; " he knows of our being in
the bark, and he has fired his beacon that we may
steer by its light."

The conjecture seemed probable, for, while the
day remained, the castle of Blonay, seated on the
bosom of the mountain that shelters Vevey to the
north-east, had been plainly visible. It had been
much admired, a pleasing object in a view that
was so richly studded with hamlets and castles,
and Adelheid had pointed it out to Sigismund as
the immediate goal of her journey. The lord
of Blonay being apprized of the intended visit,



THE HEADSMAN. 103

nothing was more probable than that he, an old
and tried friend of Melchior de Willading's,
should show this sign of impatience; partly in
compliment to those whom he expected, and
partly as a signal that might be really useful to
those who navigated the Leman, in a night that
threatened so much murky obscurity.

The Signor Grimaldi rightly deemed the cir
cumstances grave, and, calling to him his friend
and Sigismund, he communicated the apprehen
sions of the monk and Maso. A braver man than
Melchior de Willading did not dwell in all Switz
erland, but he did not hear the gloomy predictions
of the Genoese without shaking in every limb.

" My poor enfeebled Adelheid !" he said, yield
ing to a father's tenderness : " what will become
of this frail plant, if exposed to a tempest in an
unsheltered bark ?"

" She will be with her father, and with her
father's friend," answered the maiden herself; for
the narrow limits to which they were necessarily
confined, and the sudden burst of feeling in the
parent, which had rendered him incautious in
pitching his voice, made her the mistress of the
cause of alarm. " I have heard enough of what
the good Father Xavier and this mariner have
said, to know that we are in a situation that might
be better ; but am I not with tried friends ? I
know already what the Herr Sigismund can do
in behalf of my life, and come what may, we
have all a beneficent guardian in One, who will
not leave any of us to perish without remember
ing we are his children."

" This girl shames us all," said the Signor Gri
maldi ; "but it is often thus with these fragile
beings, who rise the firmest and noblest in mo
ments when prouder man begins to despair. They
put their trust in God, who is a prop to sustain



104 THE HEADSMAN.

even those who are feebler than our gentle Adel-
heid. But we will not exaggerate the causes of
apprehension, which, after all, may pass away
like many other threatening dangers, and leave
us hours of felicitation and laughter in return for
a few minutes of fright."

" Say, rather of thanksgiving," observed the
clavier, " for the aspect of the heavens is getting
to be fearfully solemn. Thou, who art a mariner
hast thou nothing to suggest ?"

" We have the simple expedient of our sweeps,
father ; but, after neglecting their use so long, it
is now too late to have recourse to them. We
could not reach Vevey by such means, with this
bark loaded to the water's edge, before the night
would change, and, the water once fairly in mo
tion, they could not be used at all."

" But we have our sails," put in the Genoese ;
" they at least may do us good service when the
wind shall come."

Maso shook his head, but he made no answer.
After a brief pause, in which he seemed to study
the heavens still more closely, he went to the spot
where the patron yet lay lost in sleep, and shook
him rudely. " Ho ! Baptiste ! awake ! there is
need here of thy counsel and of thy commands."

The drowsy owner of the bark rubbed his eyes,
and slowly regained the use of his faculties.

" There is not a breath of wind," he muttered ;
"why didst awake me, Maso? One that hath
led thy life should know that sleep is sweet to
those who toil."

" Ay, 'tis their advantage over the pampered
and idle. Look at the heavens, man, and let us
know what thou thinkest of their appearance. Is
there the stuff in thy Winkelried to ride out a
storm like this we may have to encounter ?"

" Thou talkest like a foolish quean that has been



THE HEADSMAN. 105

frightened by the fluttering of her own poultry.
The lake was never more calm, or the bark in
greater safety."

" Dost see yonder bright light ; here, over the
tower of thy Vevey church ?"

" Ay, 'tis a gallant star ! and a fair sign for the
mariner."

" Fool, 'tis a hot flame in Roger de Blonay's
beacon. They begin to see that we are in dan
ger on the shore, and they cast out their signals
to give us notice to be active. They think us be
stirring ourselves like stout men, and those used
to the water, while, in truth, we are as undis
turbed as if the bark were a rock that might
laugh at the Leman and its waves. The man is
benumbed," continued Maso, turning away to
wards the anxious listeners ; " he will not see that
which is getting to be but too plain to all the
others in his vessel."

Another idle and general laugh from the fore
castle came to contradict this opinion of Maso's,
and to prove how easy it is for the ignorant to
exist in security, even on the brink of destruction.
This was the moment, when nature gave the first
of those signals that were intelligible to vulgar
capacities. The whole vault of the heavens was
now veiled, with the exception of the spot so often
named, which lay nearly above the brawling
torrents of the Rhone. This fiery opening re
sembled a window admitting of fearful glimpses
into the dreadful preparations that were ma
king up among the higher peaks of the Alps. A.
flash of red quivering light was emitted, and
a distant, rumbling rush, that was not thunder
but rather resembled the wheelings of a thousand
squadrons into line, followed the flash. The
forecastle was deserted to a man, and the hillock
of freight was again darkly seen peopled with
crouching human forms. Just then the bark



106 THE HEADSMAN.

which had so long lain in a state of complete rest,
slowly and heavily raised its bows, as if laboring
under its great and unusual burthen, while a slug
gish swell passed beneath its entire length, lifting
the whole mass, foot by foot, and passing away by
the stern, to cast itself on the shores of Vaud.
fr " 'Tis madness to waste the precious moments
longer !" said Maso hurriedly, on whom this plain
and intelligent hint was not lost. " Signori, we
must be bold and prompt, or we shall be overta
ken by the tempest unprepared. I speak not for
myself, since, by the aid of this faithful dog, and
favored by my own arms, I have always the shore
for a hope. But there is one in the bark I would
wish to save, even at some hazard to myself. Bap-
tiste is unnerved by fear, and we must act for our
selves or perish !"

" What wouldest thou ?" demanded the Signor
Grimaldi ; " he that can proclaim the danger
should have some expedient to divert it ?"

" More timely exertion would have given us the
resource of ordinary means ; but, like those who
die in their sins, we have foolishly wasted most
precious minutes. We must lighten the bark,
though it cost the whole of her freight."

A cry from Nicklaus Wagner announced that
the spirit of avarice was still active as ever in his
bosom. Even Baptiste, who had lost all his dog
matism and his disposition to command, under the
imposing omens which had now made themselves
apparent even to him, loudly joined in the protest
against this waste of property. It is rare that any
sudden and extreme proposal, like this of Maso's,
meets with a quick echo in the judgments of those
to whom the necessity is unexpectedly presented.
The danger did not seem sufficiently imminent to
have recourse to an expedient so decided; and,
though startled and aroused, the untamed spirits



THE HEADSMAN. 107

of those who crowded the menaced pile were
rather in a state of uneasiness, than of that fierce
excitement to which they were so capable of be
ing wrought, and which was in some degree ne
cessary to induce even them, thriftless and desti
tute as they were, to be the agents of effecting so
great a destruction of property. The project of
the cool and calculating Maso would therefore
have failed entirely, but for another wheeling of
those airy squadrons, and a second wave which
lifted the groaning bark until the loosened yards
swung creaking above their heads. The canvass
flapped, too, in the darkness, like some huge bird
of prey fluttering its feathers previously to taking
wing.

" Holy and just Ruler of the land and the sea !"
exclaimed the Augustine, " remember thy repent
ant children, and have us, at this awful moment,
in thy omnipotent protection !"

" The winds are come down, and even the dumb
lake sends us the signal to be ready !" shouted
Maso. " Overboard with the freight, if ye would
live !"

A sudden heavy plunge into the water, proved
that the mariner was in earnest. Notwithstanding
the imposing and awful signs with which they
were surrounded, every individual of the nameless
herd bethought him of the pack that contained his
own scanty worldly effects, and there was a gen
eral and quick movement, with a view to secure
them. As each man succeeded in effecting his
own object, he was led away by that community
of feeling which rules a multitude. The common
rush was believed to be with a view to succor
Maso, though each man secretly knew the falsity
of the impression as respected his own particular
case ; and box after box began to tumble into the
water, as new and eager recruits lent themselves



108 THE HEADSMAN.

to the task. The impulse was quickly imparted
from one to another, until even young Sigismund
was active in the work. On these slight accidents
do the most important results depend, when the
hot impulses that govern the mass obtain the as
cendant.

It is not to be supposed that either Baptiste, or
Nicklaus Wagner, witnessed the waste of their
joint effects with total indifference. So far from
this, each used every exertion in his power to pre
vent it, not only by his voice, but with his hands.
One menaced the law the other threatened Maso
with condign punishment for his interference with
a patron's rights and duties ; but their remon
strances were uttered to inattentive ears. Maso
knew himself to be irresponsible by situation, for
it was not an easy matter to bring him within the
grasp of the authorities ; and as for the others,
most of them were far too insignificant to feel
much apprehension for a reparation that would be
most likely, if it fell at all, to fall on those who
were more able to bear it. Sigismund alone ex
erted himself under a sense of his liabilities ; but
he worked for one that was far dearer to him than
gold, and little did he bethink him of any other
consequences than those which might befall the
precious life of Adelheid de Willading.

The meagre packages of the common passen
gers had been thrown in a place of safety, with
the sort of unreflecting instinct with which we
take care of our limbs when in danger. This
timely precaution permitted each to work with a
zeal that found no drawback in personal interest,
and the effect was in proportion. A hundred hands
were busy, and nearly as many throbbing hearts
lent their impulses to the accomplishment of the
one important object.

Baptiste and his people, aided by laborers of the



THE HEADSMAN. 109

port, had passed an entire day in heaping that pile
on the deck of the Winkelried, which was now
crumbling to pieces with a rapidity that seemed
allied to magic. The patron and Nicklaus Wag
ner bawled themselves hoarse, with uttering use
less threats and deprecations, for by this time the
laborers in the work of destruction had received
some such impetus as the rolling stone acquires by
the increased momentum of its descent. Packages,
boxes, bales, and everything that came to hand,
were hurled into the water frantically, and with
out other thought than of the necessity of light
ening the groaning bark of its burthen. The agi
tation of the lake, too, was regularly increasing,
wave following wave, in a manner to cause the
vessel to pitch heavily, as it rose upon the coming,
or sunk with the receding swell. At length, a
shout announced that, in one portion of the pile,
the deck was attained !

The work now proceeded with greater security
to those engaged, for, hitherto the motion of the
bark, and the unequal footing, frequently rendered
their situations, in the darkness and confusion, to
the last degree hazardous. Maso now abandoned
his own active agency in the toil, for no sooner
did he see the others fairly and zealously enlisted
in the undertaking, than he ceased his personal ef
forts to give those directions which, coming from
one accustomed to the occupation, were far more
valuable than any service that could be derived
from a single arm.

" Thou art known to me, Signor Maso," said Bap-
tiste, hoarse with his impotent efforts to restrain
the torrent, " and thou shalt answer for this, as
well as for other of thy crimes, so soon as we
reach the haven of Ve>ey !"

" Dotard ! thou would'st carry thyself and all
with thee, by thy narrowness of spirit, to a port

VOL. I. K



110 THE HEADSMAN.

from which, when it is once entered, none ever
sail again."

" It lieth between ye both," rejoined Nicklaus
Wagner ; " thou art not less to blame than these
madmen, Baptiste. Hadst thou left the town at
the hour named in our conditions, this danger could
not have overtaken us."

" Am I a god to command the winds ! I would
that I had never seen thee or thy cheeses, or that
thou wouldst relieve me of thy presence, and go
after them into the lake."

" This comes of sleeping on duty ; nay, I know
not but that a proper use of the oars would still
bring us in, in safety, and without necessary harm
to the property of any. Noble Baron de Willa-
ding, here may be occasion for your testimony,
and, as a citizen of Berne, I pray you to heed well
the circumstances."

Baptiste was not in a humor to bear these mer
ited reproaches, and he rejoined upon the aggrieved
Nicklaus in a manner that would speedily have
brought their ill-timed wrangle to an issue, had not
Maso passed rudely between them, shoving them
asunder with the sinews of a giant. This repulse
served to keep the peace for the moment, but the
wordy war continued with so much acrimony, and
with so many unmeasured terms, that Adelheid
and her maids, pale and terror-struck by the sur
rounding scene as they were, gladly shut their
ears, to exclude epithets of such bitterness and
menace that they curdled the blood. Maso passed
on among the workmen, when he had interposed
between the disputants. He gave his orders with
perfect self-possession, though his understanding
eye perceived that, instead of magnifying the dan
ger, he had himself not fully anticipated its extent.
The rolling of the waves was now incessant, and
the quick, washing rush of the water, a sound fa-



THE HEADSMAN. Ill

miliar to the seaman, announced that they had be
come so large that their summits broke, sending
their lighter foam ahead. There were symptoms,
too, which proved that their situation was under
stood by those on the land. Lights were flashing
along the strand near Vevey, and it was not diffi
cult to detect, even at the distance at which they
lay, the evidences of a strong feeling among the
people of the town.

" I doubt not that we have been seen," said
Melchior de Willading, " and that our friends are
busy in devising means to aid us. Roger de Blonay
is not a man to see us perish without an effort, nor
would the worthy bailiff, Peter Hofmeister, be idle,
knowing that a brother of the biirgerschaft, and
an old school associate, hath need of his assist
ance."

"None can come to us, without running an
equal risk with ourselves," answered the Genoese.
" It were better that we should be left to our own
exertions. I like the coolness of this unknown
mariner, and I put my faith in God !"

A new shout proclaimed that the deck had been
gained, on the other side of the bark. Much the
greater part of the deck-load had now irretrieva
bly disappeared, and the movements of the relieved
vessel were more lively and sane. Maso called to
him one or two of the regular crew, and together
they rolled up the canvass, in a manner peculiar
to the latine rig ; for a breath of hot air, the first
of any sort that had been felt for many hours,
passed athwart the bark. This duty was perform
ed, as canvass is known to be furled at need, but
it was done securely. Maso then went among the
laborers again, encouraging them with his voice,
and directing their efforts with his counsel.

" Thou art not equal to thy task," he said, ad
dressing one who was vainly endeavoring to roll



112 THE HEADSMAN.

a bale to the side of the vessel, a little apart from
the rest of the busy crowd ; " thou wilt do better
to assist the others, than to waste thy force here."

" I feel the strength to remove a mountain ! Do
we not work for our lives ?"

The mariner bent forward, and looked into the
other's face. These frantic and ill-directed efforts
came from the Westphalian student.

" Thy star has disappeared,'' he rejoined, smi
ling for Maso had smiled in scenes far more
imposing, than even that with which he was now
surrounded.

" She gazes at it still ; she thinks of one that
loves her, who is journeying far from the father
land."

" Hold ! Since thou wilt have it so, I will help
thee to cast this bale into the water. Place thine
arm thus ; an ounce of well-directed force is worth
a pound that acts against itself."

Stooping together, their united strength did that
which had baffled the single efforts of the scholar.
The package rolled to the gangway, and the Ger
man, frenzied with excitement, shouted aloud ! The
bark lurched, and the bale went over the side, as
if the lifeless mass were suddenly possessed with
the desire to perform the evolution which its inert
weight had so long resisted. Maso recovered his
footing, which had been deranged by the unex
pected movement, with a seaman's dexterity, but
his companion was no longer at his side. Kneeling
on the gangway, he perceived the dark bale disap
pearing in the element, with the feet of the West
phalian dragging after. He bent forward to grasp
the rising body, but it never returned to the sur
face, being entangled in the cords, or, what was
equally probable, retained by the frantic grasp of
the student, whose mind had yielded to the awful
character of the night.



THE HEADSMAN 1 . 113

The life of II Maledetto had been one of great
vicissitudes and peril. He had often seen men pass
suddenly into the other state of existence, and had
been calm himself amid the cries, the groans, and,
what is far more appalling, the execrations of the
dying, but never before had he witnessed so brief
and silent an end. For more than a minute, he
hung suspended over the dark and working water,
expecting to see the student return; and, when
hope was reluctantly abandoned, he arose to his
feet, a startled and admonished man. Still dis
cretion did not desert him. He saw the useless-
ness, and even the danger, of distracting the atten


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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 8 of 22)