The Headsman; or, The Abbaye des Vignerons (1833)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 42-52.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1] On the quay in Geneva, impatient to set sail for Vévey before the fickle winds on Lake Leman lose their force, Baptiste, the greedy owner of the new but overloaded Winkelried, is thrice delayed. Mob action of the passengers, led by a leather-lunged Neapolitan street juggler, opposes the rumored embarkation of the abhorred Balthazar, holder of the hereditary post of headsman, or official executioner, of the canton of Berne. During this protest, a furious battle also occurs between two passengers’ dogs — Uberto, a St. Bernard accompanying a cheerful Augustine monk, and Nettuno, a Newfoundland dog attached to a hardy Italian erstwhile seaman courageous enough to halt the fight.

The passengers’ anxiety concerning their safe passage is relieved by Baptiste’s agreeing to submit all passengers to the scrutiny both of the Genevese port official and of a panel selected from among the passengers. The panel members selected have their own credentials cleared: Pippo, the Neapolitan rabble-rouser; an unnamed Westphalian student on literary pilgrimage to Rome; and the pompous, prosperous Bernese burgher Nicklaus Wagner, owner of much of the cargo aboard the Winkelried.

Conrad, an openly hypocritical “pilgrim” en route to Rome, is passed and, unasked, assumes a fourth screening post. Maso, owner of the Newfoundland dog, claims his papers are already aboard ship and by sheer effrontery passes both the official and the panel; he and the faithful Nettuno board the vessel.

[2] One after another, various unnamed passengers are cleared by the port official, cross-examined by the deputation, and allowed to board, with the cunning Baptiste so maneuvering matters that none will be rejected. Then the venerable Melchior, Baron de Willading, his lovely but ailing daughter Adelheid, and their liveried servants are respectfully greeted and passed, as is Monsieur Sigismund, a Swiss soldier normally in foreign service but presently accompanying the de Willadings and attentive to Adelheid. Next comes a meek, unassuming man whose papers gain him a hasty clearance from the Genevese official. Pippo, eager to provoke a little fun, questions whether this one must not be the bloody Balthazar, a charge so patently ridiculous that it prompts laughter and further mockery from Pippo. With no untoward reaction, the victim of these sallies duly embarks, followed shortly by the last prospective passenger, the respected Augustine monk and his dog Uberto.

With none identified as the detested Balthazar, Baptiste hastens to weigh anchor. But, noting two prosperous-looking travelers hurrying to the quay, the greedy owner delays the sailing further until these two Genoese gentlemen have been painstakingly identified (as a last resort, by a document whose contents are not revealed but are clearly awesome to the port official) and safely put aboard.

[3] While the Winkelried gets under way, Adelheid learns that one of the Genoese, Signor Grimaldi, is her father’s dearest youth-time friend, and she listens as the two reminisce and fill in the details of the thirty years since they last met. The Baron’s concern about the health of this sole survivor among his nine children is matched by Signor Grimaldi’s grief that his only son is, though not dead, irretrievably lost to him. During this and succeeding conversations, the two men’s camaraderie, their strong Christian faith — though one is a Calvinist and the other a Catholic — their respect for tradition and for family position, and their shared philosophic bent become apparent; too, Adelheid is revealed as a sincere, sensitive, appreciative, well-educated, thoughtful, and strong-willed young woman.

As the Winkelried continues her journey, Baptiste becomes increasingly aware that his failure to depart — as promised — from Geneva at dawn bodes ill for the safety of the voyage; the fickle winds and the peculiar situation of Lake Leman make it subject to strong and sudden gales perilous to an overloaded ship. [4] Toward sunset, despite the crew’s earnest maneuvers, the Winkelried is becalmed, and the exhausted crewmen and Baptiste go to sleep, to await the northern breeze normally following sunset by two hours.

Maso, or “I1 Maledetto” [“the accursed”], is of all passengers the only commoner not cowed by the ill-tempered Baptiste; with Baptiste asleep, the lesser passengers bestir themselves and respond heartily to the antics of Pippo, quick to sense a ready audience. [5] Maso gives but slight attention to the show, maintaining rather a serious watch on the sky and the lake, and the more aristocratic passengers soon tire of the Neapolitan’s buffoonery, so Pippo and the coarser passengers continue their merriment at the opposite end of the ship. (Pippo’s comments at Conrad’s expense allow a castigation of various practices of the Catholic Church during the period in question, the early eighteenth century.)

Soon the genteel passengers in the stern invite the meek, mild-mannered stranger, the butt of Pippo’s mocking accusation that he is the dreaded Balthazar, to join them. When Herr Müller (as Baptiste has earlier termed him) hesitates, Sigismund offers his arm in assistance, and Herr Müller quietly joins the group. On questioning, he admits to being from Berne; but soon he diverts questions from himself to the Augustine monk, whose calling to succor those lost in the Great St. Bernard portion of the Alps is valued by all. Even Maso interjects a comment on the monks’ hospitality, and Signor Grimaldi, detecting in the watchful young man “better stuff” than his outward appearance suggests, includes him briefly in the conversation; the exchange develops such biting implications that Maso himself changes the subject to that of the peculiar calm on Lake Leman. The scene, ever changing and awesomely beautiful, temporarily erases all other concerns.

But Herr Müller’s remarks prompt further questioning and lead to his comment that one living under the displeasure of his fellows comes at last to a chastening of his spirit. Sigismund, normally devoted to Adelheid, appears drawn to Herr Müller and his remarks, and Adelheid is puzzled by his single-minded concern with the stranger. At last, in response to Baron de Willading’s query “I fear thou hast taken life?” Herr Müller cautiously reveals that he is Balthazar, and prays the Baron’s aid if the truth should be discovered by those aboard who have already shown deep-seated superstition. After initial surprise mixed with aversion, the Baron agrees to afford this unjustly tormented man protection if it should be needed.

[6] After a brief conversation with the pensive Westphalian student, Maso descends to the stern, where he tells Signor Grimaldi in Italian the hazards posed by the unnatural calm of the sea and the unnatural light in the sky, signs which have also been troubling Father Xavier, the monk. Signor Grimaldi privately conveys this bad news to the Baron, who — despite the encouraging glow of the beacon from his friend Roger de Blonay’s castle above Vévey — now fears the worst.

Maso rudely awakens Baptiste and finds him immobilized by fear. Saying he has one in the ship whom he would save even at some peril to his own life, Maso takes command of the ship and, to make it more secure during the coming storm, orders the jettisoning of the cargo, All set to work — except the infuriated Baptiste and Nicklaus — to heave overboard cargo that had taken an entire day at Geneva to load. Maso, once this labor is initiated, takes further steps to safeguard the ship and its occupants, putting out the anchors, rolling up the canvas, and tying the women securely to the main masts. Seeing the Westphalian student attempting to roll a bale into the sea, he lends a hand, only to glimpse the student helplessly cast into the water with the bale by the sudden lurching of the ship; entangled in the bundle, the student cannot be rescued, a misfortune only Maso views.

Fear grips the passengers, who only twenty minutes earlier roared with laughter at Pippo’s antics. They cry for religious symbols, for a light for the Virgin’s picture — then someone mentions the curse that might lie on the Winkelried because of Baptiste’s intention to transport Balthazar. Concerned for his own safety, Baptiste exposes the headsman and then retreats. The frenzied passengers, led by Conrad and Pippo, grasp Balthazar to throw him overboard; meanwhile, Baptiste and Nicklaus grapple in vicious combat. The Baron and Signor Grimaldi, attempting to break up the latter fight, are close at hand when Balthazar, caught by Sigismund in midair and swung back to the deck, collides full force with Baptiste and Nicklaus, and sweeps not only the two contenders but also the Baron and Signor Grimaldi into the lake. At that moment, a tempest of hurricane force strikes Lake Leman.

[7] By the dull unnatural light overhead, all aboard witness the horrifying event and sense the hopelessness of the victims’ situation. When Adelheid desperately calls out his name, Sigismund plunges into the raging lake to save the Baron, father of his beloved Adelheid. Meanwhile, Maso, having provided supporting ropes for all passengers, lashes the tiller down; finding that the anchors are indeed holding the ship head to wind, he calls Nettuno, who immediately leaps into the water to rescue the imperiled men. Maso repeatedly casts a loop of rope into the waves and hauls it back on the chance that it will afford support to one of those struggling to reach the ship. Sigismund, despite his skill and determination, cannot manage to reach the Baron; fortunately, Nettuno approaches Sigismund, and the young soldier, grasping the dog’s tail and swimming vigorously alongside him, is guided to the Baron and Signor Grimaldi. The Genoese is rescued by Nettuno, and Sigismund, with the timely aid of Maso’s rope, saves the Baron; all three men are pulled aboard alive. Maso persists in casting and pulling back the life-saving rope, calling continuously to Nettuno. Finally, during a brief lull in the storm, he hears the barking and then the ominous growling of the dog; Baptiste and Nicklaus, threatening and cursing one another, still locked in furious combat, refuse to loose their hold even to save their own lives, and drown. The tempest returns with renewed force; in the ensuing lull, Maso raises no response from Nettuno, though he calls ceaselessly. Bereft of his sole companion, the mariner weeps uncontrollably, beyond comfort even by Father Xavier.

A steady north wind succeeding the spent hurricane draws Maso from his grieving to the business of pulling up anchors, setting the sails, and steering for the harbor of La Tour de Peil, near Vévey. Within an hour, the Winkelried is safely docked, to be greeted both by those human friends who have anxiously watched its perils and by Maso’s faithful Nettuno, the latter still carrying in his teeth a lock of hair from one of the quarrelsome pair washed ashore following the storm, still locked in vengeful embrace.

[8] After a brief reception by self-important Peter Hofmeister, hereditary bailiff of Vévey, and by the Baron’s longtime friend Roger de Blonay, de Willading’s party, now by invitation including Maso, ascends to de Blonay’s castle, escorted by the bailiff. That official’s deferential treatment of Signor Grimaldi mystifies the Baron but amuses Gaetano.

Following a pleasant meal, de Blonay and his guests view the peaceful lake, and, recalling Maso’s agency in their safe arrival, the Baron and Signor Grimaldi and de Blonay all offer the mariner large sums of money for his services. Refusing all such offers, Maso asks only the blessing of Signor Grimaldi, which the noble gravely gives, wishing his own lawless son might be the recipient of the benediction. Kissing Signor Grimaldi’s hand, Maso abruptly leaves, obviously moved by the scene.

[9] The following morning, Adelheid and the Baron discuss the possibility of her marrying Sigismund, who had declared his love but acknowledges the formidable barrier presented by their vastly different social stations. Both Adelheid and her father recognize the seriousness of the barrier and seek to remove it. Adelheid has confessed that her ill health is caused by despair concerning the unlikelihood of their marriage; she loves Sigismund, but will not marry him without her father’s consent. The Baron discusses the marriage with Signor Grimaldi, who shows concern at such an unequal yoking: his own life has been thus blighted, he reveals, baring the story of his unhappy marriage to Angiolina, wed against her will to the wealthy Gaetano. The discovery that Adelheid loves Sigismund persuades Signor Grimaldi that Sigismund’s service in saving both Adelheid’s life (in an unrecounted accident) and the Baron’s should outweigh the disadvantage of his lower social station. Further discussion of the matter with de Blonay strengthens the Baron’s support for the marriage.

[10] With the Baron’s assurance of his approval, Adelheid summons Sigismund and declares her love for him. To her distress, he is disturbed by her avowal, protests that their marriage is unthinkable, and at last reveals that he is the son of Balthazar. [11] On her insistence, he tells her all the facts: his father has inherited the post of headsman and his mother is herself the daughter of the headsman of Neufchâtel; to protect Sigismund from the odious office, they have had him reared from infancy apart from his family and have concealed his existence from all except his only living sibling, his sister Christine, to be married at Vévey to one who insists on the secrecy of her parentage as part of the price of marrying her; if Christine’s secret is uncovered — perhaps by the cousin forced otherwise to inherit the post — Sigismund will be honor-bound to acknowledge his identity and to succeed his father in office.

[12] Adelheid, assuring Sigismund she loves him nonetheless, promises to discuss this discovery with her father, supporting Sigismund’s cause but abiding by her father’s decision. The Baron and Signor Grimaldi, presented with the horrifying information, doubt the wisdom of the marriage, though they discuss it long and earnestly, and will continue to consider it together.

[13] Meanwhile, preparations have been made for the colorful Abbaye des Vignerons held every six years at Vévey, attracting thousands of visitors from all parts of Europe. Central to the neo-Bacchanalian festival is a lengthy procession representing all of Switzerland’s agricultural activities, especially those associated with the production of wine. Erected in the city square is a platform reserved for honored guests, including the worthy bailiff, de Willading and his party, and Roger de Blonay.

Just before the guests enter, Father Xavier appears to greet the throng, which welcomes him and his dog Uberto, throwing the latter bits of food. Nettuno, now a close companion of Uberto, incenses the crowd by eating some of Uberto’s scraps; and Maso’s dog is roundly abused and at last injured by a sizable rock thrown from the crowd by Conrad. Maso immediately throttles Conrad, the halberdiers intercede, three witnesses (including Pippo) offer contradictory evidence in the matter, and — to keep the peace — Maso, Conrad, and the three witnesses are hustled off to jail.

[14] As soon as the bailiff and his guests are seated, the procession begins, with actual shepherds, gardeners, mowers, reapers, and vine-dressers demonstrating their various jobs, each group with its own songs and dances, and each honoring a pagan god or goddess or demigod — Ceres, Flora, Pales, Bacchus, Silenus, Hymen — with special attention reserved for Bacchus and for the group accompanying Hymen. [15] Response from the multinational audience is enthusiastic, especially for the realistic performance of the part of the satyr Silenus, played by Antoine Giraud, well supplied already with the wine he is commending. Great interest is shown in the identity of the young couple actually to be wed at the conclusion of the performance; the bride-to-be is Sigismund’s sister, Christine, whose worth, despite her beauty and demeanor, is questioned because of the bridegroom’s paltry gift, a single gold chain, in contrast to the huge dowry she brings him. [16] As the procession circles the city, it passes the jail where Maso, Conrad, and the three witnesses are confined; Maso has enticed his fellow prisoners into heavy intoxication, and the moment the bridal group has passed, he escapes, followed by those others not too drunk to run. An outcry reaches the bailiff, and at his order they are apprehended. [17] The prisoners are brought to the square just in time for the celebration of the nuptials; their sentencing is deferred, at Signor Grimaldi’s suggestion, until after the wedding ceremony. [18] A genuine notary officiates; the bridegroom, Jacques Colis, signs the papers in the presence of several of his friends as witnesses. When the bride is to sign and no witnesses appear, Balthazar and his wife Marguerite come forward. Christine is about to sign when Pippo, still under guard, identifies the girl as a headsman’s daughter. Immediately, Jacques Colis tears up his signed statement, refusing to wed Christine. Shocked silence is succeeded by public approbation of Jacques’s action; despite Balthazar’s and Marguerite’s protests, the marriage is canceled. [19] Signor Grimaldi’s informing the bailiff of Maso’s significant service during the voyage causes that official to release all five of the prisoners, after which the bailiff and his male guests hasten to the fine feast awaiting them.

Adelheid, after winning Marguerite’s confidence, goes secretly to their housing in Vévey to comfort the stricken Christine. After a long conversation, during which she discovers Sigismund has informed his family on every point of their relationship except her declaration of love for him, Adelheid invites the abused girl to accompany the de Willading party to Italy, an offer gratefully accepted.

[20] Early the following morning, de Willading’s party, including Christine, leaves for the late-season passage through the Alps, riding sure-footed mules along the trail, and accompanied as far as Villeneuve by Roger de Blonay. Through scenes of mixed beauty and barrenness they travel until nightfall, staying overnight, as planned, at Martigny. There de Willading hires Pierre Dumont, the most reliable mountain guide, to lead them to Aoste, Italy. Dumont reports that a few have gone ahead of them: Pippo, Conrad, Maso, and Jacques Colis, whose behavior at Vévey has become known already throughout the pass.

[21] The party’s leisurely pace is gradually quickened by the guide as he detects the threat of worsening weather, a concern communicated only to Signor Grimaldi. Following a rest stop at Liddes, they hurry even faster, increasingly feeling the chill in the shaded glens and finally becoming so cold that they are in danger of freezing to death. [22] Snow begins to fall, making walking even more difficult; desertion of the party by a hired muleteer causes the unmounted mules to wander, and in going to recover the mules, the party loses the path. [23] Sigismund and Pierre, seeking the trail, encounter Maso and Nettuno, also lost; the last two join the de Willading party. Just as hope has been abandoned, Uberto locates the party and leads them to the wayside Refuge provided by the Bernardine monks, a shelter which saves their lives. All the members of the party and their animals sleep that night within the Refuge. Uberto, once the party is safely housed, goes to the convent to summon help; Father Xavier and several convent servants meet them at the Refuge the next morning to guide them to the convent.

[24] Adelheid and Christine’s inquiring about four travelers “sleeping” in the smaller hut near the Refuge — a discovery made during their early-morning walk just after Maso’s departure with Nettuno — prompts Pierre’s examination of the “bone-house” sheltering unclaimed corpses and the revelation that the fourth body is that of the murdered Jacques Coils. Since the matter requires immediate legal attention, Sigismund is sent ahead to the convent with the female members of the party while the rest remain to investigate the murder.

[25] Sigismund, after seeing the women to the convent, observes three men and a dog leaving the convent. Suspecting Maso’s involvement in the murder, he accosts the three, and with the aid of a young monk and the convent dogs has Maso, Conrad, and Pippo placed in confinement for questioning. Soon afterwards, while visiting the convent chapel, Sigismund receives a note that Balthazar has been found hiding in the bone-house and is therefore, suspected of the crime, being brought in chains to the convent. Greatly agitated, Sigismund tells Adelheid and Adelheid tells Christine the distressing news; all express confidence in Balthazar’s innocence, but all three are uneasy about the outcome of the formal trial, for which the châtelain of Sion, in Upper Valais (the official in whose area the murder has occurred), and Peter Hofmeister, bailiff of Vévey (concerned with the welfare of the accused, an official in his canton), have been called.

[26] On his arrival three days later, the bailiff frankly confesses to Sigismund that only Signor Grimaldi’s distinguished presence has persuaded him to make the hazardous journey through the pass, a statement the Vévey official repeats to Father Michael, Prior of the convent, when he is greeted by the latter. After a hearty meal, all the dignitaries go directly to the chapel, where the trial is to be held; the châtelain is to serve as judge and inquisitor. The corpse of Jacques Colis is present but concealed. Also attending are the bailiff, all members of the Bernardine brotherhood currently at the convent, and all members of the de Willading party; among the women at one side is Marguerite, come to support her husband at his trial.

[27] Balthazar’s answers to the judge’s questions are given openly and honestly, and the headsman’s statements are supported by Signor Grimaldi and Marguerite. When the judge requires Balthazar and Marguerite and then Christine to view the corpse, their responses are free from evidence of guilt or rancor. Christine’s concluding testimony convinces the judge of Balthazar’s innocence.

[28] Pippo and Conrad, summoned next, produce testimony sufficient to acquit them of the charge; the two would have been released entirely except for Signor Grimaldi’s recommendation that all remain until the proceedings are completed. They therefore agree to detention until the following morning.

Maso, the last to be interrogated, gives ready, open answers to the questions asked; and testimony in his behalf is volunteered by Melchior, Father Xavier, Signor Grimaldi, and Sigismund. Since his apparent poverty does not accord with his well-known traffic in contraband and since Jacques Colis is known to have been carrying jewels not round on his corpse, Maso is questioned on this point. After the chapel has been cleared of all not directly concerned, Maso removes from Nettuno’s body a belt containing a valuable necklace, to be sold to a Milanese noble. The judge, detecting a second packet in Nettuno’s fur, orders its removal — a packet obviously surprising also to Maso — and in it are found most of Colis’s missing valuables. Despite Maso’s claims that the second packet is not his and that he is innocent of the murder, both the judge and the bailiff agree that he is to be held responsible for the crime. [29] Knowing the seriousness of the case, Maso reveals that Signor Grimaldi is the powerful Doge of Genoa; identifies himself as the Doge’s son, Bartolomeo; proves his statement by presenting a signet ring given him by the Doge; recounts the Doge’s unhappy marriage, the untimely death of his young wife, and the abduction of: his only child by the wife’s vengeful lover; restates his own innocence of the murder; and proclaims that the only son of the Doge of Genoa “has little to fear from the headsman’s blow!” (p. 458).

At this point, Balthazar interjects some information: the Doge’s real son may instead be Sigismund, adopted (without Marguerite’s knowledge) by the headsman when their own son Sigismund died in infancy; the child, surrendered to Balthazar when Signore Pantaleone (abductor of an unnamed Italian noble’s son) was to be executed by the headsman for murder, was left with a substantial sum in gold and with various personal items sufficient to identify him; the child’s given name was Gaetano; for the child’s mother the abductor had deep love but for the child’s father equally deep hatred; Sigismund himself has not been told of his adoption and assumes he is in truth the headsman’s son.

[30] Earnest searching for physical resemblances poses more problems than it solves, and the Doge’s hopes are further dashed by Maso’s reminder of certain papers proving his paternity and of a similar declaration from the lips of a dying priest. Balthazar, urged to produce evidence, brings the clothing and trinkets left with the abducted child, among which Gaetano finds an heirloom he himself had hung around the infant’s neck. On this discovery, Adelheid appeals to Maso to reveal the truth she feels certain he is still concealing, and at length Maso agrees to exchange this further information for his release.

[31] During the three days spent awaiting the bailiff’s arrival, Adelheid has won her father’s consent to her marriage with Sigismund if Balthazar’s innocence of the murder can be proved (the alternative she offers is her unmarried state until death, an option unacceptable to the Baron). Therefore, the morning following the trial, Adelheid and Sigismund are married in the convent chapel by Father Xavier, with Sigismund’s paternity still in doubt but clearly not through Balthazar’s line of descent.

After the wedding, Pippo and Conrad are encouraged to leave for Italy; they are not to be parties to Maso’s last revelations or to his release from bondage for the murder. As the de Willading party, having left the convent, stand on the Italian border, Maso reveals that he is indeed the son of the Doge, but born out of wedlock to a poor but beautiful young woman, now dead, named Annunziata Altieri. The papers furnished to Maso by a confederate of the abductor rightly belong to Sigismund, born Gaetano to the unhappy Angiolina.

Before the Doge is able to make atonement to Maso for the wrong done his mother, Maso leaves via a rocky shortcut, determined to outdistance Conrad and Pippo. Papers later secretly delivered to the Doge allow Sigismund’s recognition as the Doge’s son and heir; despite earnest efforts, no one ever hears of Il Maledetto again. The charge of murder is subsequently removed from Maso by Pippo’s confession, before his own execution for another murder, that he and Conrad had killed Jacques Colis and had hidden his valuables on Nettuno’s body for undetected transport into Italy.

Balthazar, Baptiste, Herr Bourrit, Christine,Jacques Colis, Conrad, Bartolomeo Contini (Maso], Roger de Blonay, Adelheid de Willading, Melchior de Willading, Pierre Dumont, Benoit Emery, Etienne, Antoine Giraud, Signor Gaetano Grimaldi, Gaetano Grimaldi [Sigismund Steinbach], Henri, Peter Hofmeister, Enrico Marcelli, Marguerite, Mariette Marron, Father Michael, Pippo, Nicklaus Wagner, Father Xavier.