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The Headsman - Or, The Abbaye Des Vignerons

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



The principal scenes of this tale are Lake Leman, now generally called the Lake of Geneva, and the Hospice of St. Bernard, on the Great St. Bernard Pass. Its political purpose is similar to that noted in the introduction to The Bravo.

THE Winkeiried, a two-masted lateen-rigged vessel, bound from Geneva on Lake Leman to the canton of Vaud, was so heavily overladen as to render the passage dangerous in any but fair weather. Besides an unusual number of passengers, attracted to Vevay by the Abbaye des Vignerons, the fete supposed to be the modem representative of the festival of Bacchus, the bark was piled high with merchandise and country products which their owners hoped would find a market at the fair. A portion of the deck aft was reserved for persons of quality, while a space forward was devoted to peasants and others of less consequence. Most of the freight belonged to Nicklaus Wagner, a burgher of Bern.

Among the better-class passengers were Baron Melchior de Willading, of Bern, and his daughter Adelheid, on their way to Italy in search of health for the latter. With them was a Signore Gaetano Grimaldi, a Genoese gentleman who had served with de Willading in his youth in Italy, but whom he had not seen, until this chance meeting, for thirty years. An-other friend of the Baron's was a young soldier, of a deter-mined eye and stalwart frame, whom he addressed as Monsieur Sigismund. He had been fortunate enough to save the life of Adelheid, and, though not gentle by birth, had since been held in high favor.

Among the other passengers were a self-possessed Italian with the bearing of a mariner, whose companion was a shaggy Newfoundland dog called Nettuno, who had given his name as Maso, "though wicked-minded men call me oftener Il Maledetto"; an Augustine monk, in black robe and white belt, who also had a dog, a large St. Bernard called Uberto, that had made friends with Nettuno; a Neapolitan named Pippo, a vagabond and knave who traveled by his wits; several poor scholars on a literary pilgrimage to Rome; small traders returning from Germany and France; several lackeys out of a situation; and a troupe of street jugglers. Great pains had been taken to ascertain the identity of these various personages, for it was currently reported that Balthazar, the headsman of Bern, was to take passage in the Winkelried, and none cared to trust himself on the seas with such a person.

The Lake of Geneva, or Lake Leman as it was then generally called, is a treacherous sheet. The Winkelried had worked into the eastern crescent of the lake as the sun touched the hazy line of the Jura, when the wind failed entirely, and the surface became as smooth and glassy as a mirror. The crew, fatigued with their previous toil, threw themselves among the boxes and bales to catch a little sleep before the rising of the north wind, usually expected within an hour or two after sunset. Among the passengers was one whose eye had often been seen to turn toward the group of passengers near the helmsman, and at last Signore Grimaldi invited him to descend from among the bales and boxes and join them.

The soldier called Sigismund came forward and helped him down to the deck, where he walked about in a way to show a grateful relief in being permitted to make the change. Sigismund was rewarded for his act of good nature by a smile from Adelheid, which caused his brow to flush.

"You are better here," said the baron kindly, when the newcomer, Herr Muller, had fairly established himself among them. "Are you of Bern or of Zurich?"

"Of Bern, Herr Baron."

"I might have guessed that. There are many Millers in the Emmen Thal. I had many Mullers in my company, Gaetano, when we lay before Mantua."

Signore Grimaldi, noting from Herr Muller's timid and subdued answers that the personal nature of the conversation was distressful to him, turned the talk by asking the monk of St. Bernard about his mountain home, which, he said, should prove a passport to the favor of every Christian.

"Signore," observed the sailor called Maso, taking part uninvited in the discourse, "none know this better than I. A wanderer these many years, I have often seen the stony roof of the hospice with as much pleasure as I have ever be-held the entrance of my haven in an adverse gale."

"Thou art a Genoese, by thy dialect," said Signore Grimaldi.

"I was born in the city of palaces, though it was my fortune first to see the light beneath a humble roof. 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 shriveled and diseased skin it conceals."

"Thou hast the philosophy of it, young man. If content with thy lot, no palace of our city would make thee happier."

"Content, Signore, is like the north star—all seamen steer for it, but none can ever reach it!"

"Is thy seeming moderation only affected? Wouldst thou be the patron of the bark in which fortune hath made thee only a passenger?"

"And a bad fortune it hath proved," replied Maso, laughing. "We appear fated to pass the night in it."

The evening was hot and sultry, and after sunset the sky took a solemn and menacing appearance. Maso, after studying the heavens closely, went and waked Baptiste. The drowsy owner of the bark rubbed his eyes and exclaimed, "Why didst thou wake me ? There is not a breath of wind ! "

"Dost see yonder bright light?"

"Ay, 'tis a gallant star! a fair sign for the mariner." "Fool, 'tis a flame in Roger de Blonay's beacon to warn us of danger."

The next moment a flash of red quivering light was emitted, and a distant rumbling rush, which resembled not thunder, but rather the wheeling of many squadrons into line, followed it. The wind rose and the bark, so long at rest, began to labor under its great and unusual burden.

"'Tis madness to waste the precious moments longer," said Maso. " Signore, we must be bold and prompt, or we shall be caught by the tempest unprepared."

"What wouldst thou?" demanded Signore Grimaldi.

" We must lighten the bark, though it cost the whole of her freight."

Nicklaus Wagner and even Baptiste raised an energetic protest against this sacrifice, but Maso, shouting "Overboard with the freight, if ye would live!" set to work throwing out the cargo, in which he was soon assisted by many willing hands. After much of the deck-load had disappeared, the movements of the vessel became more lively and sane. The passengers now gathered between the masts, and some suggested that the bark was cursed by the possible presence among them of the headsman. Baptiste trembled when the question was put squarely to him, finally permitting the dangerous secret to escape him, and when ordered to point out the headsman, indicated the person who called himself Herr Muller. The poor man was greeted with a general and breathless pause, but it was only the precursor of a hurricane, for the next instant he was seized by Pippo and others, and borne struggling to the side of the vessel. The headsman appealed loudly for help. Sigismund sprang forward at the cry, followed by the Baron and Signore Grimaldi, and was just in time to catch the headsman by his garments. He swung him inward by a vast effort of strength, and his body, striking the two nobles as well as Baptiste and Nicklaus Wagner, forced all four into the water. Adelheid and the other women, who had been lashed to the masts, set up a fearful cry, and Sigismund, who heard his name above the tumult, sprang into the caldron of the lake, bent on saving a life so dear to Adelheid or perishing in the attempt.

Maso, who had watched the crisis with a seaman's coolness, shouted, "Nettuno, Nettuno! where art thou, brave Nettuno ?"

The faithful animal, whining near him but unheard in the roar of the elements, leaped into the boiling lake at the encouragement of his master's voice, while Maso knelt on the edge of the gangway and bending forward gazed into the night with aching eyes. He shouted encouragement to the dog, and gathering a small rope made a coil with one end, cast it out and hauled it in repeatedly.

The Baron was about sinking for the last time when Sigismund reached him. The soldier heard his cry—" God be with my child, my Adelheid!"—and seized him just as the old man's, strength gave out.

"Yield thee to the dog, Signore," he cried to Signore Grimaldi, " trust to his sagacity, and—God keep us in mind."

The dog swam steadily away as soon as he had the Genoese in his grip, and Sigismund followed with his burden. The soldier soon heard the shouts of Maso calling to his dog, and a moment later caught the coil of rope and was drawn with the baron to the deck, where both received those attentions already offered to Signore Grimaldi, saved by Nettuno. The faithful dog had swam away into the darkness again on delivering his burden, and Maso still stood at the gangway shouting his name and throwing his coil of rope. Maso heard the dog growl, then came a sound of smothered voices and long howls, after which only the roar of the elements reached his ears. He called till he grew hoarse, and when he found that no cry could recall his faithful companion, he threw himself on the deck in a paroxysm of passion, tore his hair, and wept audibly. The Augustine tried to comfort him, saying:

"Thou hast saved all our lives, bold mariner, and there are those in the bark will know how to reward thy courage and skill. Forget then thy dog, and indulge in a grateful prayer to Maria and the saints."

"Father, I have eaten with the animal, slept with the animal, fought, swam, and made merry with him, and I could now drown with him. What are thy nobles and their gold to me without my dog?"

"Christians have been called into the dread presence unconfessed and unshrived, and we should bethink us of their souls rather than indulge in grief for one who, however faithful, ends but an unreasoning existence."

These words of the good father, who referred to Baptiste and Nicklaus Wagner, both of whom had been lost, were thrown away on Maso, who did not cease to bewail the loss of Nettuno.

The fitful mountain gusts were succeeded in the morning by a steady northerly breeze, and Maso, who now assumed command of the Winkelried, soon took her safely into the harbor of Vevay. A hundred voices greeted the passengers as they landed, for the coming of the vessel had been watched for with anxiety. In the crowd came a shaggy object bounding with delight, and Maso found his Nettuno, who leaped upon him in frantic joy.

The Baron de Willading and his friend were entertained at the castle of Roger de Blonay. On the succeeding day the Baron announced to Grimaldi his intention of giving his daughter to Sigismund, who had now been instrumental in saving Adelheid's life and his own. The Genoese looked grave as he listened, and finally said:

"Such a girl, my friend, is not to be bestowed without much care and reflection."

"By the mass! I wonder to hear thee talk thus! I remember thy saying once that thou couldst not sleep soundly till thy own sister was a wife or a nun."

"The language of thoughtless youth. I wived a noble virgin, De Willading; but I much fear I was too late to win her love. Her fancy had been captivated by another, and I was accepted as a cure to a bleeding heart. The unhappy Angiolina died in giving birth to her first child, the unfortunate son of whom thou knowest. Beware of making marriage a mere convenience."

"But Adelheid loves this youth."

"And Sigismund! he has thy approbation?"

"He has; but there is an obstacle—he is not noble." "The objection is serious, my honest friend. I would he were noble. What is his origin and history?"

"Sigismund is a Swiss, of a family of Bernese burghers. I know little of him beyond that he has passed several years in foreign service. My sister, near whose castle the acquaintance began through his saving Adelheid's life in one of our mountain accidents, permitted their intercourse, which it is now too late to think of prohibiting."

"Let his origin be what it may," said the Genoese, "he shall not need gold. I charge myself with that."

If would seem as if this conversation between the two old friends made the way clear for the union of the lovers; but when, at their next meeting, Adelheid delicately suggested to Sigismund that her father had consented to overlook his want of noble birth, he passed his hand across his brow like one in intense agony, while a cold perspiration broke out on forehead and temples in large visible drops.

"Adelheid—dearest Adelheid—thou knowest not what thou sayest! One like me can never become thy husband."

"Sigismund!—why this distress. Speak to me! I love thee, Sigismund. Wouldst thou have me—can I say more?"

"Blessed, ingenuous girl! But what does it all avail? Our marriage is impossible."

"But why, Sigismund? If thou lovest me, speak calmly and without reserve."

"Spare me—in mercy, Adelheid, spare me! I am the son of Balthazar, the headsman!"

As Sigismund uttered this he would have fled from the room, but Adelheid detained him and, after the first shock was over, made him tell the story of his life. Sigismund had only lately discovered his parentage, for he had been put away early by Balthazar in order to break the continuity of the heads-man's line, for the office was hereditary and the eldest son was obliged to succeed the father. Through the connivance of his mother, a daughter of the headsman of Neuchatel, Sigismund was conveyed from the house when an infant, the fraud being concealed by a feigned death, so that the authorities were ignorant of his existence. His sister also had her birth concealed: a younger brother, expected to succeed the father, had died and, in default of the discovery of Sigismund's heirship, a distant kinsman had fallen heir to the privileges, if such they might be called.

"Why should the truth ever be known!" exclaimed Adelheid. "Thou sayest thy family has ample means. Relinquish all to this youth, on condition that he assume thy place!"

Adelheid, like a dutiful daughter, made known to her father at once the secret of Sigismund's birth. The Baron and the Signore Grimaldi gazed at her as she told his story as if astounded by some dire calamity.

"A damnable and a fearful fact!" exclaimed Melchior. "The villain would engraft his impurity on the untarnished stock of a noble and ancient family. This is a dark and dastardly crime."

"Let us not rashly blame the boy, good Melchior," said his friend, "whose birth is a misfortune rather than a crime. If he were a thousand Balthazars, he has saved our lives!"

"Thou sayest true—thou sayest no more than the truth. But dost thou, Gaetano Grimaldi, counsel me to give my child, the heiress of my lands and name, to the son of the public executioner?"

"There thou hast me on the hip, Melchior. Oh! why is this Balthazar so rich in offspring, and I so poor? But this is an affair of many sides, and should be judged by us as men as well as nobles. Leave us, Adelheid, that we may command ourselves; for thy sweet, pale face appeals too eloquently to my heart in behalf of the noble boy."

It was the last day of the festival at Vevay, and arrangements had been made to celebrate it by a marriage between Jacques Colis, a native of Vaud, and Christine, the daughter of Balthazar. Colis, in consideration of a rich dower, had consented to wed the headsman's daughter, provided that her paternity should be kept secret. The contracting parties were about to sign the marriage settlements, when Pippo, the rascally Italian who had tried with others to throw Balthazar overboard, came forward, half intoxicated, and publicly announced that the fair bride was the daughter of the headsman of Bern—"who is sufficiently out of favor with Heaven to bring the fate of Gomorrah upon your town."

Balthazar, seeing that his secret was betrayed, looked around with firmness and responded to the question of the bailiff: "Herr Bailiff, I am by inheritance the last avenger of the law."

This admission was received in solemn silence by the spectators, but Jacques Colis seized the marriage contract, which he had already signed, tore it in fragments, and announced that he would not marry a headsman's child. This declaration was followed by a shout from the bystanders, and by coarse, deriding laughter.

Sigismund grasped his sword-hilt and would have inter-posed, but for Adelheid, who whispered:

"For the sake of thy poor sister, forbear! It is impossible that one so sweet and innocent should long remain with her honor unavenged!"

The result was that Adelheid sought Christine soon after, wept with her and consoled her, and persuaded the humiliated girl to accompany her on the morrow to Italy.

The next morning a long cavalcade, consisting of the Baron de Willading and Signore Grimaldi with their followers and others, set out for the Hospice of St. Bernard, under the guidance of Pierre Dumont. The party was well armed, for freebooters were known to infest the mountain road. To the inquiries of Signore Grimaldi as to those who had gone up lately, the guide replied that a certain Pippo with other vagabonds had preceded them, as well as one Jacques Colis, who had left Vevay on ac-count of some foolery that had made him the butt of all the jokers. Signore Grimaldi, who noted Sigismund's agitation, changed the subject by asking if there were no others.

"A countryman of your own, Signore, who impudently calls himself Il Maledetto."

"Honest Maso and his noble dog!"

"Signore, Maso hath not his equal on the road for activity and courage, but when you speak of honesty, you speak of that for which the world gives him little credit."

"This may be true enough," rejoined Signore Grimaldi "but we know him to be a most efficient friend, and owe him a grateful recollection."

After leaving Martigny the travelers pressed on as fast as the road would permit, but night overtook them and snow began to fall. They lost their way and were on the point of perishing when they were joined by Maso and Nettuno, and later by the mastiff Uberto, sent out from the hospice. By the help of the two dogs, the house of refuge was reached, in which the party spent a comfortable night.

Why old Uberto had led them to the refuge was a mystery to the guide, for the dog had never, in his experience, been known to do so before; then, attracted by the animal's singular actions, he looked into the dead-house adjoining the refuge, and found there the body of a man recognized at once as Jacques Colis. Investigation showed that he had been murdered. There were several wounds on the body, his clothes bore evidences of a struggle, and a knife was found sticking in his back. From a corner of the same building they next dragged out a living man, who, to the astonishment of all, was recognized as Balthazar. The body of Jacques Colis was left where it lay, the headsman was led a prisoner to the Hospice.

The party was detained several days at the Hospice, while news of the murder was sent to the authorities of Vevay, in whose jurisdiction the Hospice then stood. The bailiff of Vevay came up and Balthazar was brought to trial. The old man answered with frankness the questions put to him, asserted that he knewn othing of Colis's movements, and explained that his presence on the mountain was due solely to his love for his daughter, whom he hoped to see again at the Hospice. After a long and searching examination, he was remanded, and Pippo and a companion, Conrad, were brought in and closely questioned as to their movements on the ascent, but nothing was learned from them. Lastly, Maso was questioned and made to tell of his movements. He answered all interrogatories with nonchalance, but when asked about his apparent poverty, when he had the reputation of being a traveling agent between the jewelers of Geneva and Italy, Maso called Nettuno to him and parting his shaggy hair drew from around his body a belt, which he opened, displaying a glittering necklace set with rubies and emeralds.

One who was master of this," said Maso, "would be little likely to shed blood for the trifle to be found on such as Jacques Colis."

"What contains this other belt I find under the hair of the dog?"

Maso either felt or feigned a well-acted surprise.

"Signore," said the smuggler, "by my patron saint and the Virgin, I know nothing of this second belt."

The belt was cut open and out of it were taken several pieces of jewelry that were known to have belonged to Jacques Colis.

"Wilt thou now confess thy crime, Tommaso Santi, ere we proceed to extremities?"

"That I have long been at variance with the law," said Maso, "is true, but I am as innocent of this man's death as the noble Baron de Willading."

"This need go no farther," said the bailiff. "The heads-man and the others may be dismissed; we commit the Italian to the irons."

Maso appeared to have a violent struggle with himself, and then said calmly:

"Doge of Genoa, necessity forces me to speak—I am Bartolo Contini!"

A groan escaped the compressed lips of the Prince as he sank into a seat and gazed at Maso, with eyes that appeared ready to burst from their sockets.

"Thou Bartolommeo!" he uttered huskily.

"I am Bartolo, Signore, and no other. Even your Highness travels at times under a cloud."

"Melchior," said the Doge, "we are but feeble and miser-able creatures in the hand of one who looks upon the proudest and happiest of us, as we look upon the worm that crawls the earth! Here is Balthazar, whom the dogs are ready to bay, the father of this gallant youth; while I, the last of a line that is lost in the obscurity of time, am accursed with a brigand, a murderer, for the sole prop of my decaying house—with this II Maladetto—for a son!"

While all the listeners were struck with astonishment, Maso alone was unmoved, discovering none of that sympathy which even a life like his ought not to have extinguished in the heart of a child. He was cold, collected, observant, and master of his smallest action. In the long conversation which ensued, he presented proofs which the Doge could not ignore. Balthazar, who had listened with intense interest, at last said:

"This tale of Maso's is removing a cloud that has lain for nearly thirty years before my eyes. Is it true, illustrious Doge, that a son of your noble stock was stolen through the enmity of a rival?"

" True—too true! Would it had pleased the blessed Maria to call his spirit to heaven ere the curse befell him and me!"

The headsman then asked many questions concerning the time, place, and circumstances, many of which were answered by the baron, who was conversant with the details. Balthazar listened patiently to the answers until all his doubts were apparently satisfied, when he exclaimed: "This is enough. Dismiss your grief, princely Doge, and prepare your heart for a new-found joy. Sigismund, a child that might gladden the heart of any parent, though he were an emperor, is your son!"

This extraordinary declaration stunned and confounded the listeners.

"This is so wonderful!" said the trembling Doge, "so wildly improbable, that, though my soul yearns to believe it, my reason refuses credence. Balthazar, it must be proved. And thou, Sigismund, come close to my heart, noble boy, that I may bless thee—that I may feel one beat of a father's pulse—one instant of a father's joy!"

Balthazar was enabled to prove his words, and all were made happy by the discovery. As to Maso, it turned out that he was what he claimed to be, a son, but an illegitimate one, of the Doge and one Annunziata Altieri. He was permitted to go, and it was afterward proved that Colis was murdered by Pippo and Conrad, who had hidden the jewels found on him in the shaggy hair of the dog in order to convey them undetected over the frontiers of Piedmont.



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