James Fenimore Cooper.

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

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tion of the workmen, and the ill-fated scholar was
permitted to pass away without a word of regret
or a comment on his fate. None knew of his loss
but the wary mariner, nor was his person missed
by any of those who had spent the day in his com
pany. But she to whom he had plighted his faith
on the banks of the Elbe long gazed at that pale
star, and wept in bitterness that her feminine con
stancy met with no return. Her true affections
long outlived their object, for his image was deep
ly enshrined in a warm female heart. Days,
weeks, months, and years passed for her in the
wasting cheerlessness of hope deferred, but the
dark Leman never gave up its secret, and he to
whom her lover's fate alone was known little be
thought him of an accident which, if not forgotten,
was but one of many similar frightful incidents in
his eventful career.

Maso re-appeared among the crowd, with the
forced composure of one who well knew that au
thority was most efficient when most calm. The
command of the vessel was now virtually with
him, Baptiste, enervated by the extraordinary cri
sis, and choking with passion, being utterly inca
pable of giving a distinct or a useful order. It was


fortunate for those in the bark that the substitute
was so good, for more fearful signs never impend
ed over the Leman than those which darkened the

We have necessarily consumed much time in
relating these events, the pen not equalling the ac
tivity of the thoughts. Twenty minutes, however,
had not passed since the tranquillity of the lake
was first disturbed, and so great had been the ex
ertions of those in the Winkelried, that the time
appeared to be shorter. But, though it had been
so well employed, neither had the powers of the
air been idle. The unnatural opening in the hea
vens was shut, and, at short intervals, those fear
ful wheelings of the aerial squadrons were draw
ing nearer. Thrice had fitful breathings of warm
air passed over the bark, and occasionally, as she
plunged into a sea that w r as heavier than common,
the faces of those on board were cooled, as it
might be with some huge fan. These were no
more, however, than sudden changes in the atmos
phere, of which veins were displaced by the dis
tant struggle between the heated air of the lake
and that which had been chilled on the glaciers,
or, they were the still more simple result of the
violent agitation of the vessel.

The deep darkness which shut in the vault, giv
ing to the embedded Leman the appearance of a
gloomy, liquid glen, contributed to the awful sub
limity of the night. The ramparts of Savoy were
barely distinguishable from the flying clouds, hav
ing the appearance of black walls, seemingly with
in reach of the hand; while the more varied and
softer cotes of Vaud lay an indefinable and som
bre mass, less menacing, it is true, but equally
confused and unattainable.

Still the beacon blazed in the grate of old Roger
de Blonay, and flaring torches glided along the


strand. The shore seemed alive with human be
ings, able as themselves to appreciate and to feel
for their situation.

The deck was now cleared, and the travellers
were collected in a group between the masts
Pippo 1 had lost all his pleasantry under the dread
signs of the hour, and Conrad, trembling with su
perstition and terror, was free from hypocrisy.
They, and those with them, discoursed on their
chances, on the nature of the risks they ran, and
on its probable causes.

"I see no image of Maria, nor even a piti
ful lamp to any of the blessed, in this accursed
bark !" said the juggler, after several had hazard
ed their quaint and peculiar opinions. " Let the
patron come forth, and answer for his negli

The passengers were about equally divided be
tween those who dissented from and those who
worshipped with Rome. This proposal, therefore,
met with a mixed reception. The latter protested
against the neglect, while the former, equally un
der the influence of abject fear, were loud in de
claring that the idolatry itself might cost them all
their lives.

" The curse of heaven alight on the evil tongue
that first uttered the thought !" muttered the trem
bling Pippo between his teeth, too prudent to fly
openly in the face of so strong an opposition, and
yet too credulous not to feel the omission in every
nerve " Hast nothing by thee, pious Conrad, that
may avail a Christian ?"

The pilgrim reached forth his hand with a rosa
ry and cross. The sacred emblem passed from
mouth to mouth, among the believers, with a zeal
little short of that they had manifested in unload
ing the deck. Encouraged by this sacrifice, they
called loudly upon Baptiste to present himself.


Confronted with these unnurtured spirits, the pa
tron shook in every limb, for, between anger and
abject fear, his self-command had by this time ab
solutely deserted him. To the repeated appeals to
procure a light, that it might be placed before a
picture of the mother of God which Conrad pro
duced, he objected his Protestant faith, the im
possibility of maintaining the flame while the bark
pitched so violently, and the divided opinions of
the passengers. The Catholics bethought them of
the country and influence of Maso, and they loud
ly called upon him, for the love of God ! to come
and enforce their requests. But the mariner was
occupied on the forecastle, lowering one anchor
after another into the water, passively assisted by
the people of the bark, who wondered at a precau
tion so useless, since no rope could reach the bot
tom, even while they did not dare deny his orders.
Something was now said of the curse that had
alighted on the vessel, in consequence of its pa
tron's intention to embark the headsman. Bap-
tiste trembled to the skin of his crown, and his
blood crept with a superstitious awe.

" Dost think there can really be aught in this !"
he asked, with parched lips and a faltering

All distinction of faith was lost in the general
ridicule. Now the Westphalian was gone, there
was not a man among them to doubt that a navi
gation, so accompanied, would be cursed. Bap-
tiste stammered, muttered many incoherent sen
tences, and finally, in his impotency, he permitted
the dangerous secret to escape him.

The intelligence that Balthazar was among them
produced a solemn and deep silence. The fact,
however, furnished as conclusive evidence of the
cause of their peril to the minds of these untutored
beings, as a mathematician could have received


from the happiest of his demonstrations. New
light broke in upon them, and the ominous stillness
was followed by a general demand for the patron
to point out the man. Obeying this order, partly
under the influence of a terror that was allied to
his moral weakness, and partly in bodily fear, he
shoved the headsman forward, substituting the per
son of the proscribed man for his own, and, profit
ing by the occasion, he stole out of the crowd.

When the Herr Miiller, or as he was now
known and called, Balthazar, was rudely pushed
into the hands of these ferocious agents of super
stition, the apparent magnitude of the discovery
induced a general and breathless pause. Like the
treacherous calm that had so long reigned upon
the lake, it was a precursor of a fearful and vio
lent explosion. Little was said, for the occasion
was too ominous for a display of vulgar feeling, but
Conrad, Pippo, and one or two more, silently rais
ed the fancied offender in their arms, and bore
him desperately towards the side of the bark.

"Call on Maria, for the good of thy soul!"
whispered the Neapolitan, with a strange mixture
of Christian zeal, in the midst of all his ferocity.

The sound of words like these usually conveys
the idea of charity and love, but, notwithstanding
this gleam of hope, Balthazar still found himself
borne towards his fate.

On quitting the throng that clustered together in
a dense body between the masts, Baptiste encoun
tered his old antagonist, Nicklaus Wagner. The
fury which had so long been pent in his breast sud
denly found vent, and, in the madness of the mo
ment, he struck him. The stout Bernese grappled
his assailant, and the struggle became fierce as
that of brutes. Scandalized by such a spectacle,
offended by the disrespect, and ignorant of what
else was passing near for the crowd had uttered


its resolutions in the suppressed voices of men de
termined the Baron de Willading and the Signor
Grimaldi advanced with dignity and firmness to
prevent the shameful strife. At this critical mo
ment the voice of Balthazar was heard above the
roar of the coming wind, not calling on Maria, as
he had been admonished, but appealing to the two
old nobles to save him. Sigismund sprang for
ward like a lion, at the cry, but too late to reach
those who were about to cast the headsman from
the gangway, he was just in time to catch the body,
by its garments, when actually sailing in the air.
By a vast effort of strength its direction was di
verted. Instead of alighting in the water, Baltha
zar encountered the angry combatants, who, driv
en back on the two nobles, forced the whole four
over the side of the bark into the water.

The struggle between the two bodies of air
ceased, that on the surface of the lake yielding
to the avalanche from above, and the tempest came
howling upon the bark.


and now the glee

Of the loud hills shakes with their mountain-mirth.


It is necessary to recapitulate a little, in order
to connect events. The signs of the hour had
been gradually but progressively increasing. While
the lake was unruffled, a stillness so profound pre
vailed, that sounds from the distant port, such as
the heavy fall of an oar, or a laugh from the wa
terman, had reached the ears of those in the Win-


kelried, bringing with them the feeling of security,
and the strong charm of a calm at even. To
these succeeded the gathering in the heavens, and
the roaring of the winds, as they came rushing
down the sides of the Alps, in their first descent
into the basin of the Leman. As the sight grew
useless, except as it might study the dark omens
of the impending vault, the sense of hearing be
came doubly acute, and it had been a powerful
agent in heightening the vague but acute appre
hensions of the travellers. The rushes of the
wind, which at first were broken, at intervals re
sembling the roar of a chimney-top in a gale, had
soon reached the fearful grandeur of those aerial
wheelings of squadrons, to which we have more
than once alluded, passing off in dread mutterings,
that, in the deep quiet of all other things, bore a
close affinity to the rumbling of a surf upon the
sea-shore. The surface of the lake was first bro
ken after one of these symptoms, and it was this
infallible sign of a gale which had assured Maso
there was no time to lose. This movement of the
element in a calm is a common phenomenon on
waters that are much environed with elevated and
irregular head-lands, and it is a certain proof that
wind is on some distant portion of the sheet. It
occurs frequently on the ocean, too, where the
dpariner is accustomed to find a heavy sea setting
in one direction, the effects of some distant storm,
while the breeze around him is blowing in its op
posite. It had been succeeded by the single roll
ing swell, like the outer circle of waves produced
by dropping a stone into the water, and the regu
lar and increasing agitation of the lake, until the
element broke as in a tempest, and that seemingly
of its own volition, since not a breath of air was
stirring. This last and formidable symptom of
the force of the coming gust, however, had now


become so unequivocal, that, at the moment when
the three travellers and the patron fell from her
gangway, the Winkelried, to use a seaman's
phrase, was literally wallowing in the troughs of
the seas.

A dull unnatural light preceded the winds, and
notwithstanding the previous darkness, the nature
of the accident was fully apparent to all. Even
the untamed spirits that had just been bent upon
so fierce a sacrifice to their superstitious dread,
uttered cries of horror, while the piercing shriek
of Adelheid sounded, in that fearful moment, as
if beings of super-human attributes were riding in
the gale. The name of Sigismund was heard,
too, in one of those wild appeals that the frantic
suffer to escape them, in their despair. But the
interval between the plunge into the water and the
swoop of the tempest was so short, that, to the
senses of the travellers, the whole seemed the oc
currence of the same teeming moment.

Maso had completed his work on the forecastle,
had seen that other provisions which he had or
dered were duly made, and had reached the tiller,
just in time to witness and to understand all that
occurred. Adelheid and her female attendants
were already lashed to the principal masts, and
ropes were given to the others around her, as in
dispensable precautions ; for the deck of the bark?
now cleared of every particle of its freight, was
as exposed and as defenceless against the power
of the wind, as a naked heath. Such was the sit
uation of the Winkelried, when the omens of the
night changed to their dread reality.

Instinct, in cases of sudden and unusual danger,
must do the office of reason. There was no ne
cessity to warn the unthinking but panic-struck
crowd to provide for their own safety, for every
man in the centre of the barge threw his body flat


on the deck, and grasped the cords that Maso had
taken care to provide for that purpose, with the
tenacity with which all who possess life cling to
the means of existence. The dogs gave beautiful
proofs of the secret and wonderful means fhat na
ture has imparted, to answer the ends of their
creation. Old Uberto crouched, cowering, and
oppressed with a sense of helplessness, at the side
of his master, while the Newfoundland follower of
the mariner went leaping from gangway to gang
way, snuffing the heated air, and barking wildly,
as if he would challenge the elements to close for
the strife.

A vast body of warm air had passed unheeded
athwart the bark, during the minute that preceded
the intended sacrifice of Balthazar. It was the
forerunner of the hurricane, which had chased it
from the bed where it had been sleeping, since the
warm and happy noon-tide. Ten thousand char
iots at their speed could not have equalled the
rumbling that succeeded, when the winds came
booming over the lake. As if too eager to permit
anything within their fangs to escape, they brought
with them a wild, dull light, which filled* while it
clouded the atmosphere, and which, it was scarce
ly fanciful to imagine, had been hurried down, in
their vortex, from those chill glaciers, where they
had so long been condensing their forces for the
present descent. The waves were not increased,
but depressed by the pressure of this atmospheric
column, though it took up hogshead, of water from
their crests, scattering it in fine penetrating spray,
till the entire space between the heavens and the
earth seemed saturated with its particles.

The Winkelried received the shock at a moment
when the lee-side of her broad deck was wallow
ing in the trough, and its weather was protruded
on the summit of a swell. The wind howled,



when it struck the pent limits, as if angered at being
thwarted, and there was a roar under the wide
gangways, resembling that of lions. The reeling
vessel was raised in a manner to cause those on
board to believe it about to be lifted bodily from
the water, but the ceaseless rolling of the element
restored the balance. Maso afterwards affirmed
that nothing but this accidental position, which
formed a sort of lee, prevented all in the bark from
being swept from the deck, before the first gust of
the hurricane.

Sigismund had heard the heart-rending appeal
of Adelheid, and, notwithstanding the awful strife
of the elements and the fearful character of the
night, he alone breasted the shock on his feet.
Though aided by a rope, and bowed like a reed,
his herculean frame trembled under the shock, in a
way to render even his ability to resist seriously
doubtful. But, the first blast expended, he sprang
to the gangway, and leaped into the cauldron of
the lake unhesitatingly, and yet in the possession
of all his faculties. He w r as desperately bent on
saving a life so dear to Adelheid, or on dying in
the attempt.

Maso had watched the crisis with a seaman's
eye, a seaman's resources, and a seaman's cool
ness. He had not refused to quit his feet, but
kneeling on one knee, he pressed the tiller down,
lashed it, and clinging to the massive timber, faced
the tempest with the steadiness of a water-god.
There was sublimity in the intelligence, delibera
tion, and calculating skill, with which this solitary,
unknown, and nearly hopeless, mariner obeyed his
professional instinct, in that fearful concussion of
the elements, which, loosened from every restraint,
now appeared abandoned to their own wild and
fierce will. He threw aside his cap, pushed for
ward his thick but streaming locks, as veils to pro-


tect his eyes, and watched the first encounter of
the wind, as the wary but sullen lion keeps his gaze
on the hostile elephant. A grim smile stole across
his features, when he felt the vessel settle again
into its watery bed, after that breathless moment
in which there had been reason to fear it might
actually be lifted from its proper element. Then
the precaution, which had seemed so useless and
incomprehensible to others, came in play. The
bark made a fearful whirl from the spot where it
had so long lain, yielding to the touch of the gust
like a vane turning on its pivot, while the water
gurgled several streaks on deck. But the cables
were no sooner taut than the numerous anchors
resisted, and brought the bark head to wind. Maso
felt the yielding of the vessel's stern, as she swung
furiously round, and he cheered aloud. The
trembling of the timbers, the dashing against the
pointed beak, and that high jet of water, which shot
up over the bows and fell heavily on the forecas
tle, washing aft in a flood, were so many eviden
ces that the cables were true. Advancing from
his post, with some such dignity as a master of
fence displays in the exercise of his art, he shout
ed for his dog.

" Nettuno ! Nettuno ! where art thou, brave
Nettuno ?"

The faithful animal was whining near him, un
heard in that war of the elements. He waited only
for this encouragement to act. No sooner was
his master's voice heard, than, barking bravely, he
snuffed the gale, dashed to the side of the vessel,
and leaped into the boiling lake.

When Melchior de Willading and his friend re
turned to the surface, after their plunge, it was
like men making their appearance in a world aban
doned to the infernal humors of the fiends of dark
ness. The reader will understand it was at the


instant of the swoop of the winds, that has just
been detailed, for what we have taken so many
pages to describe in words, scarce needed a min
ute of time in the accomplishment.

Maso knelt on the verge of the gangway, sus
taining himself by passing an arm around a shroud,
and, bending forward, he gazed into the cauldron
of the lake with aching eyes. Once or twice, he
thought he heard the stifled breathing of one who
struggled with the raging water ; but, in that roar
of the winds, it was easy to be deceived.. He
shouted encouragement to his dog, however, and
gathering a small rope rapidly, he made a heaving
coil of one of its ends. This he cast far from him,
with a peculiar swing and dexterity, hauling-in,
and repeating the experiments, steadily and with
unwearied industry. The rope was necessarily
thrown at hazard, for the misty light prevented
more than it aided vision ; and the howling of the
powers of the air filled his ears with sounds that
resembled the laugh of devils.

In the cultivation of the youthful manly exer
cises, neither of the old nobles had neglected the
useful skill of being able to buffet with the waves.
But both possessed what was far better, in such
a strait, than the knowledge of a swimmer, in that
self-command and coolness in emergencies which
they are apt to acquire, who pass their time in en
countering the hazards and in overcoming the
difficulties of war. Each retained a sufficiency
of recollection, therefore, on coming to the surface,
to understand his situation, and not to increase the
danger by the ill-directed and frantic efforts that
usually drown the frightened. The case was suf
ficiently desperate, at the best, without the addi
tional risk of distraction, for the bark had already
drifted to some unseen spot, that, as respects them,
was quite unattainable. In this uncertainty, it


would have been madness to steer amid the waste
of waters, as likely to go wrong as right, and they
limited their efforts to mutual support and en
couragement, placing their trust in God.

Not so with Sigismund. To him the roaring
tempest was mute, the boiling and hissing lake had
no horrors, and he had plunged into the fathomless
Leman as recklessly as he could have leaped to
land. The shriek, the " Sigismund ! oh, Sigis
mund !" of Adelheid, was in his ears, and her cry
of anguish thrilled on every nerve. The athletic
young Swiss was a practised and expert swimmer,
or it is improbable that even these strong impulses
could have overcome the instinct of self-preser
vation. In a tranquil basin, it would have been
no extraordinary or unusual feat for him to con
quer the distance between the Winkelried and the
shores of Vaud ; but, like all the others, on casting
himself into the water, he was obliged to shape
his course at random, and this, too, amid such a
driving spray as rendered even respiration difficult.
As has been said, the waves were compressed into
their bed rather than augmented by the wind ; but,
had it been otherwise, the mere heaving and set
tling of the element, while it obstructs his speed,
offers a support rather than an obstacle to the
practised swimmer.

Notwithstanding all these advantages, the
strength of his impulses, and the numberless oc
casions on which he had breasted the surges of the
Mediterranean, Sigismund, on recovering from his
plunge, felt the fearful chances of the risk he ran,
as the stern soldier meets the hazards of battle, in
which he knows if there is victory there is also
death. He dashed the troubled water aside, though
he swam blindly, and each stroke urged him farther
from the bark, his only hope of safety. He was
between dark rolling mounds, and, on rising to


their summits, a hurricane of mist made him glad
to sink again within a similar shelter. The break
ing crests of the waves, which were glancing off'
in foam, also gave him great annoyance, for such
was their force, that, more than once, he was hurl
ed helpless as a log before them. Still he swam
boldly, and with strength; nature having gifted
him with more than the usual physical energy of
man. But, uncertain in his course, unable to see
the length of his own body, and pressed hard upon
by the wind, even the spirit of Sigismund Stein-
bach could not long withstand so many adverse
circumstances. He had already turned, wavering
in purpose, thinking to catch a glimpse of the bark
in the direction he had come, when a dark mass
floated immediately before his eyes, and he felt
the cold clammy nose of the dog, scenting about
his face. The admirable instinct, or we might
better say, the excellent training of Nettuno, told
him that his services were not needed here, and,
barking with wild delight, as if in mockery of the
infernal din of the tempest, he sheered aside, and
swam swiftly on. A thought flashed like lightning
on the brain of Sigismund. His best hope was in
the inexplicable faculties of this animal. Throwing
forward an arm, he seized the bushy tail of the
dog, and suffered himself to be dragged ahead, he
knew not whither, though he seconded the move
ment with his own exertions. Another bark pro
claimed that the experiment was successful, and
voices, rising as it were from the water, close at
hand, announced the proximity of human beings.
The brunt of the hurricane was past, and the
washing of the waves, which had been stilled by
the roar and the revelry of the winds, again be
came audible.

The strength of the two struggling old men was

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Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons. A tale (Volume vol. 1) → online text (page 9 of 22)