James Fenimore Cooper.

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his pursuits, was loss of money, now earnestly pressed the travellers to
comply with the necessary forms, and to take their stations in his bark
with all convenient speed.

"Of what matter is it," continued the calculating waterman, who was rather
conspicuously known for the love of thrift that is usually attributed to
most of the inhabitants of that region, "whether there be one headsman or
twenty in the bark, so long as the good vessel can float and steer? Our
Leman winds are fickle friends, and the wise take them while in the humor.
Give me the breeze at west, and I will load the Winkelried to the water's
edge with executioners, or any other pernicious creatures thou wilt, and
thou mayest take the lightest bark that ever swam in the _bise_, and let
us see who will first make the haven of Vévey!"

The loudest, and in a sense that is very important in all such
discussions, the principal, speaker in the dispute, was the leader of the
Neapolitan _troupe_, who, in virtue of good lungs, an agility that had no
competitor in any present, and a certain mixture of superstition and
bravado, that formed nearly equal ingredients in his character, was a man
likely to gain great influence with those who, from their ignorance and
habits, had an inherent love of the marvellous, and a profound respect for
all who possessed, in acting, more audacity, and, in believing, more
credulity than themselves. The vulgar like an excess, even if it be of
folly; for, in their eyes, the abundance of any particular quality is
very apt to be taken as the standard of its excellence.

"This is well for him who receives, but it may be death to him that pays,"
cried the son of the south, gaining not a little among his auditors by the
distinction, for the argument was sufficiently wily, as between the buyer
and the seller. "Thou wilt get thy silver for the risk, and we may get
watery graves for our weakness. Nought but mishaps can come of wicked
company, and accursed will they be, in the evil hour, that are found in
brotherly communion, with one whose trade is hurrying Christians into
eternity, before the time that has been lent by nature is fairly up. Santa
Madre! I would not be the fellow-traveller of such a wretch, across this
wild and changeable lake, for the honor of leaping and showing my poor
powers in the presence of the Holy Father, and the whole of the learned
conclave!"

This solemn declaration, which was made with suitable gesticulation, and
an action of the countenance that was well adapted to prove the speaker's
sincerity, produced a corresponding effect on most of the listeners, who
murmured their applause in a manner sufficiently significant to convince
the patron he was not about to dispose of the difficulty, simply by virtue
of fair words. In this dilemma he bethought him of a plan of overcoming
the scruples of all present, in which he was warmly seconded by the agent
of the police, and to which, after the usual number of cavilling
objections that were generated by distrust, heated blood, and the
obstinacy of disputation, the other parties were finally induced to give
their consent. It was agreed that the examination should no longer be
delayed, but that a species of deputation from the crowd might take their
stand within the gate where all who passed would necessarily be subject
to their scrutiny, and, in the event of their vigilance detecting the
abhorred and proscribed Balthazar, that the patron should return his money
to the headsman, and preclude him from forming one of a party that was so
scrupulous of its association, and, apparently, with so little reason. The
Neapolitan, whose name was Pippo; one of the indigent scholars, for a
century since learning was rather the auxiliary than the foe of
superstition, and a certain Nicklaus Wagner, a fat Bernese, who was the
owner of most of the cheeses in the bark, were the chosen of the multitude
on this occasion. The first owed his election to his vehemence and
volubility, qualities that the ignoble vulgar are very apt to mistake for
conviction and knowledge; the second to his silence and a demureness of
air which pass with another class for the stillness of deep water; and the
last to his substance, as a man of known wealth, an advantage which, in
spite of all that alarmists predict on one side and enthusiasts affirm on
the other, will always carry greater weight with those who are less
fortunate in this respect, than is either reasonable or morally healthful,
provided it is not abused by arrogance or by the assumption of very
extravagant and oppressive privileges. As a matter of course, these
deputed guardians of the common rights were first obliged to submit their
own papers to the eye of the Genevese.[1]

[Footnote 1: As we have so often alluded to this examination, it may be
well to explain, that the present system of gend'armerie and passports
did not then prevail in Europe; taking their rise nearly a century later
than that in which the events of this tale had place. But Geneva was a
small and exposed state, and the regulation to which there is reference
here, was one of the provisions which were resorted to, from time to
time in order to protect those liberties and that independence, of which
its citizens were so unceasingly and so wisely jealous.]

The Neapolitan, than whom an archer knave, or one that had committed more
petty wrongs, did not present himself that day at the water-gate, was
regularly fortified by every precaution that the long experience of a
vagabond could suggest, and he was permitted to pass forthwith. The poor
Westphalian student presented an instrument fairly written out in
scholastic Latin, and escaped further trouble by the vanity of the
unlettered agent of the police, who hastily affirmed it was a pleasure to
encounter documents so perfectly in form. But the Bernese was about to
take his station by the side of the other two, appearing to think inquiry,
in his case, unnecessary. While moving through the passage in stately
silence, Nicklaus Wagner was occupied in securing the strings of a well
filled purse, which he had just lightened of a small copper coin, to
reward the varlet of the hostelry in which he had passed the night, and
who had been obliged to follow him to the port to obtain even this scanty
boon; and the Genevese was fain to believe that, in the urgency of this
important concern, he had overlooked those forms which all were, just
then, obliged to respect, on quitting the town.

"Thou hast a name and character?" observed the latter, with official
brevity.

"God help thee, friend! - I did not think Geneva had been so particular
with a Swiss; - and a Swiss who is so favorably known on the Aar, and
indeed over the whole of the great canton! I am Nicklaus Wagner, a name of
little account, perhaps, but which is well esteemed among men of
substance, and which has a right even to the Bürgerschaft - Nicklaus Wagner
of Berne - thou wilt scarce need more?"

"Naught but proof of its truth. Thou wilt remember this is Geneva; the
laws of a small and exposed state need be particular in affairs of this
nature."

"I never questioned thy state being Geneva; I only wonder thou shouldst
doubt my being Nicklaus Wagner! I can journey the darkest night that ever
threw a shadow from the mountains, any where between the Jura and the
Oberland, and none, shall say my word is to be disputed. Look 'ee, there
is the patron, Baptiste, who will tell thee, that if he were to land the
freight which is shipped in my name, his bark would float greatly the
lighter."

All this time Nicklaus was nothing loth to show his papers, which were
quite in rule. He even held them, with a thumb and finger separating the
folds, ready to be presented to his questioner. The hesitation came from a
feeling of wounded vanity, which would gladly show that one of his local
importance and known substance was to be exempt from the exactions
required from men of smaller means. The officer, who had great practice in
this species of collision with his fellow-creatures, understood the
character with which he had to deal, and, seeing no good reason for
refusing to gratify a feeling which was innocent, though sufficiently
silly, he yielded to the Bernese pride.

"Thou canst proceed," he said, turning the indulgence to account, with a
ready knowledge of his duty; "and when thou gettest again among thy
burghers, do us of Geneva the grace to say^ we treat our allies fairly."

"I thought thy question hasty!" exclaimed the wealthy peasant, swelling
like one who gets justice, though tardily. "Now let us to this knotty
affair of the headsman."

Taking his place with the Neapolitan and the Westphalian, Nicklaus assumed
the grave air of a judge, and an austerity of manner which proved that he
entered on his duty with a firm resolution to do justice.

"Thou 'art well known here, pilgrim," observed the officer, with some
severity of tone, to the next that came to the gate.

"St. Francis to speed, master, it were else wonderful! I should be so, for
the seasons scarce come and go more regularly."

"There must be a sore conscience somewhere, that Rome and thou should need
each other so often?"

The pilgrim, who was enveloped in a tattered coat, sprinkled with
cockle-shells, who wore his beard, and was altogether a disgusting picture
of human depravity, rendered still more revolting by an ill-concealed
hypocrisy, laughed openly and recklessly at the remark.

"Thou art a follower of Calvin, master," he replied, "or thou would'st not
have said this. My own failings give me little trouble. I am engaged by
certain parishes of Germany to take upon my poor person their physical
pains, and it is not easy to name another that hath done as many messages
of this kind as myself, with better proofs of fidelity. If thou hast any
little offering to make, thou shalt see fair papers to prove what I
say; - papers that would pass at St. Peter's itself!"

The officer perceived that he had to do with one of those unequivocal
hypocrites - if such a word can properly be applied to him who scarcely
thought deception necessary - who then made a traffic of expiations of this
nature; a pursuit that was common enough at the close of the seventeenth
and in the commencement of the eighteenth centuries, and which has not
even yet entirely disappeared from Europe. He threw the pass with
unconcealed aversion towards the profligate, who, recovering his document,
assumed unasked his station by the side of the three who had been
selected to decide on the fitness of those who were to be allowed to
embark.

"Go to!" cried the officer, as he permitted this ebullition of disgust to
escape him; "thou hast well said that we are followers of Calvin. Geneva
has little in common with her of the scarlet mantle, and thou wilt do well
to remember this, in thy next pilgrimage, lest the beadle make
acquaintance with thy back, - Hold! who art thou?"

"A heretic, hopelessly damned by anticipation, if that of yonder
travelling prayer-monger be the true faith;" answered one who was pressing
past, with a quiet assurance that had near carried its point without
incurring the risks of the usual investigation into his name and
character. It was the owner of Nettuno, whose aquatic air and perfect
self-possession now caused the officer to doubt whether he had not stopped
a waterman of the lake - a class privileged to come and go at will.

"Thou knowest our usages," said the half-satisfied Genevese.

"I were a fool else! Even the ass that often travels the same path comes
in time to tell its turns and windings. Art not satisfied with touching
the pride of the worthy Nicklaus Wagner, by putting the well-warmed
burgher to his proofs, but thou would'st e'en question me! Come hither,
Nettuno; thou shalt answer for both, being a dog of discretion. We are no
go-betweens of heaven and earth, thou knowest, but creatures that come
part of the water and part of the land!"

The Italian spoke loud and confidently, and to the manner of one who
addressed himself more to the humors of those near than to the
understanding of the Genevese. He laughed, and looked about him in a
manner to extract an echo from the crowd, though not one among them all
could probably have given a sufficient reason why he had so readily taken
part with the stranger against the authorities of the town, unless it
might have been from the instinct of opposition to the law.

"Thou hast a name?" continued the half-yielding, half-doubting guardian of
the port.

"Dost take me to be worse off than the bark of Baptiste, there? I have
papers, too, if thou wilt that I go to the vessel in order to seek them.
This dog is Nettuno, a brute from a far country, where brutes swim like
fishes, and my name is Maso, though wicked-minded men call me oftener Il
Maledetto than by any other title."

All in the throng, who understood the signification of what the Italian
said, laughed aloud, and apparently with great glee, for, to the grossly
vulgar, extreme audacity has an irresistible charm. The officer felt that
the merriment was against him, though he scarce knew why; and ignorant of
the language in which the other had given his extraordinary appellation,
he yielded to the contagion, and laughed with the others, like one who
understood the joke to the bottom. The Italian profited by this advantage,
nodded familiarly with a good-natured and knowing smile, and proceeded.
Whistling the dog to his side, he walked leisurely to the bark, into which
he was the first that entered, always preserving the deliberation and calm
of a man who felt himself privileged, and safe from farther molestation.
This cool audacity effected its purpose, though one long and closely
hunted by the law evaded the authorities of the town, when this singular
being took his seat by the little package which contained his scanty
wardrobe.




Chapter II.


"My nobiel liege! all my request
Ys for a nobile knyghte,
Who, tho' mayhap he has done wronge,
Hee thoughte ytt stylle was righte."

Chatterton.


While this impudent evasion of vigilance was successfully practised by so
old an offender, the trio of sentinels, with their volunteer assistant the
pilgrim, manifested the greatest anxiety to prevent the contamination of
admitting the highest executioner of the law to form one of the strangely
assorted company. No sooner did the Genevese permit a traveller to pass,
than they commenced their private and particular examination, which was
sufficiently fierce, for more than once had they threatened to turn back
the trembling, ignorant applicant on mere suspicion. The cunning Baptiste
lent himself to their feelings with the skill of a demagogue, affecting a
zeal equal to their own, while, at the same time, he took care most to
excite their suspicions where there was the smallest danger of their being
rewarded with success. Through this fiery ordeal one passed after another,
until most of the nameless vagabonds had been found innocent, and the
throng around the gate was so far lessened as to allow a freer circulation
in the thoroughfare. The opening permitted the venerable noble, who has
already been presented to the reader, to advance to the gate, accompanied
by the female, and closely followed by the menials. The servitor of the
police saluted the stranger with deference, for his calm exterior and
imposing presence were in singular contrast with the noisy declamation
and rude deportment of the rabble that had preceded.

"I am Melchior de Willading, of Berne," said the traveller, quietly
offering the proofs of what he said, with the ease of one sure of his
impunity; "this is my child - my only child," the old man repeated the
latter words with melancholy emphasis, "and these, that wear my livery,
are old and faithful followers of my house. We go by the St. Bernard, to
change the ruder side of our Alps for that which is more grateful to the
weak - to see if there be a sun in Italy that hath warmth enough to revive
this drooping flower, and to cause it once more to raise its head
joyously, as until lately, it did ever in its native halls."

The officer smiled and repeated his reverences, always declining to
receive the offered papers; for the aged father indulged the overflowing
of his feelings in a manner that would have awakened even duller
sympathies.

"The lady has youth and a tender parent of her side," he said; "these are
much when health fails us."

"She is indeed too young to sink so early!" returned the father, who had
apparently forgotten his immediate business, and was gazing with a tearful
eye at the faded but still eminently attractive features of the young
female, who rewarded his solicitude with a look of love; "but thou hast
not seen I am the man I represent myself to be."

"It is not necessary, noble baron; the city knows of your presence, and I
have it, in especial charge, to do all that may be grateful to render the
passage through Geneva, of one so honored among our allies, agreeable to
his recollections."

"Thy city's courtesy is of known repute," said the Baron de Willading,
replacing his papers in their usual envelope, and receiving the grace like
one accustomed to honors of this sort: - "art thou a father?"

"Heaven has not been niggardly of gifts of this nature: my table feeds
eleven, besides those who gave them being."

"Eleven! - The will of God is a fearful mystery! And this thou seest is the
sole hope of my line; - the only heir that is left to the name and lands of
Willading! Art thou at ease in thy condition?"

"There are those in our town who are less so, with many thanks for the
friendliness of the question."

A slight color suffused the face of Adelheid de Willading, for so was the
daughter of the Bernese called, and she advanced a step nearer to the
officer.

"They who have so few at their own board, need think of those who have so
many," she said, dropping a piece of gold into the hand of the Genevese:
then she added, in a voice scarce louder than a whisper - "If the young and
innocent of thy household can offer a prayer in the behalf of a poor girl
who has much need of aid, 'twill be remembered of God, and it may serve to
lighten the grief of one who has the dread of being childless."

"God bless thee, lady!" said the officer, little used to deal with such
spirits, and touched by the mild resignation and piety of the speaker,
whose simple but winning manner moved him nearly to tears; "all of my
family, old as well as young, shall bethink them of thee and thine."

Adelheid's cheek resumed its paleness, and she quietly accompanied her
father, as he slowly proceeded towards the bark. A scene of this nature
did not fail to shake the pertinacity of those who stood at watch near the
gate. Of course they had nothing to say to any of the rank of Melchior de
Willading, who went into the bark without a question. The influence of
beauty and station united to so much simple grace as that shown by the
fair actor in the little incident we have just related, was much too
strong for the ill-trained feelings of the Neapolitan and his companions.
They not only let all the menials pass unquestioned also, but it was some
little time before their vigilance resumed its former truculence. The two
or three travellers that succeeded had the benefit of this fortunate
change of disposition.

The next who came to the gate was the young soldier, whom the Baron de
Willading had so often addressed as Monsieur Sigismund. His papers were
regular, and no obstacle was offered to his departure. It may be doubted
how far this young man would have been disposed to submit to these
extra-official inquiries of the three deputies of the crowd, had there
been a desire to urge them, for he went towards the quay, with an eye that
expressed any other sensation than that of amity or compliance. Respect,
or a more equivocal feeling, proved his protection; for none but the
pilgrim, who displayed ultra-zeal in the pursuit of his object, ventured
so far as to hazard even a smothered remark as he passed.

"There goes an arm and a sword that might well shorten a Christian's
days," said the dissolute and shameless dealer in the church's abuses,
"and, yet no one asks his name or calling!"

"Thou hadst better put the question thyself," returned the sneering Pippo,
"since penitence is thy trade. For myself, I am content with whirling
round at my own bidding, without taking a hint from that young giant's
arm."

The poor scholar and the burgher of Berne appeared to acquiesce in this
opinion, and no more said in the matter. In the mean while there was
another at the gate. The new applicant had little in his exterior to renew
the vigilance of the superstitious trio. A quiet, meek-looking man,
seemingly of a middle condition in life, and of an air altogether calm and
unpretending, had submitted his passport to the faithful guardian of the
city. The latter read the document, cast a quick and inquiring glance at
its owner, and returned the paper in a way to show haste, and a desire to
be rid of him.

"It is well," he said; "thou canst, go thy way."

"How now!" cried the Neapolitan, to whom buffoonery was a congenial
employment, as much by natural disposition as by practice; "How now! - have
we Balthazar at last, in this bloody-minded and fierce-looking traveller?"
As the speaker had expected, this sally was rewarded by a general laugh,
and he was accordingly encouraged to proceed. "Thou knowest our office,
friend," added the unfeeling mountebank, "and must show us thy hands. None
pass who bear the stain of blood!"

The traveller appeared staggered, for he was plainly a man of retired and
peaceable habits, who had been thrown, by the chances of the road, in
contact with one only too practised in this unfeeling species of wit. He
showed his open palm, however, with a direct and confiding simplicity,
that drew a shout of merriment from all the by-standers.

"This will not do; soap, and ashes, and the tears of victims, may have
washed out the marks of his work from Balthazar himself. The spots we seek
are on the soul, man, and we must look into that, ere thou art permitted
to make one in this goodly company."

"Thou didst not question yonder young soldier thus," returned the
stranger, whose eye kindled, as even the meek repel unprovoked outrage,
though his frame trembled violently at being subject to open insults from
men so rude and unprincipled; "thou didst not dare to question yonder
young soldier thus!"

"By the prayers of San Gennaro! which are known to stop running and melted
lava, I would rather thou should'st undertake that office than I. Yonder
young soldier is an honorable decapitator, and it is a pleasure to be his
companion on a journey; for, no doubt, some six or eight of the saints are
speaking in his behalf daily. But he we seek is the outcast of all, good
or bad, whether in heaven or on earth, or in that other hot abode to which
he will surely be sent when his time shall come."

"And yet he does no more than execute the law!"

"What is law to opinion, friend? But go thy way; none suspect thee to be
the redoubtable enemy of our heads. Go thy way, for Heaven's sake, and
mutter thy prayers to be delivered from Balthazar's axe."

The countenance of the stranger worked, as if he would have answered; then
suddenly changing his purpose, he passed on, and instantly disappeared in
the bark. The monk of St. Bernard came next. Both the Augustine and his
dog were old acquaintances of the officer, who did not require any
evidence of his character or errand from the former.

"We are the protectors of life and not its foes," observed the monk, as,
leaving the more regular watchman of the place, he drew near to those,
whose claims to the office would have admitted of dispute: "we live among
the snows, that Christians may not die without the church's comfort."

"Honor, holy Augustine, to thee and thy office!" said the Neapolitan, who,
reckless and abandoned as he was, possessed that instinct of respect for
those who deny their natures for the good of others which is common to
all, however tainted by cupidity themselves. "Thou and thy dog, old
Uberto, can freely pass, with our best good wishes for both."

There no longer remained any to examine, and, after a short consultation
among the more superstitious of the travellers, they came to the very
natural opinion that, intimidated by their just remonstrances, the
offensive headsman had shrunk, unperceived, from the crowd, and that they
were at length happily relieved from his presence. The annunciation of the
welcome tidings drew much self-felicitation from the different members of



Online LibraryJames Fenimore CooperThe Headsman The Abbaye des Vignerons → online text (page 2 of 37)