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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Headsman: The Abbaye Des Vignerons - Chapter 24
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The Headsman: The Abbaye Des Vignerons - Chapter 24 Post by :andrewteg Category :Long Stories Author :James Fenimore Cooper Date :May 2012 Read :2190

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The Headsman: The Abbaye Des Vignerons - Chapter 24

Chapter XXIV

Side by side,
Within they lie, a mournful company.


Rogers.

The sleep of the weary is sweet. In after-life, Adelheid, when dwelling in a palace, reposing on down, and canopied by the rich stuffs of a more generous climate, was often heard to say that she had never taken rest grateful as that she found in the Refuge of St. Bernard. So easy, natural, and refreshing, had been her slumbers, unalloyed even by those dreams of precipices and avalanches which, long afterwards, haunted her slumbers, that she was the first to open her eyes on the following morning, awaking like an infant that had enjoyed a quiet and healthful repose. Her movements aroused Christine. They threw aside the cloaks and coats that covered them, and sat gazing about the place in the confusion that the novelty of their situation would be likely to produce. All the rest of the travellers still slumbered; and, arising without noise, they passed the silent and insensible sleepers, the quiet mules which had stretched themselves near the entrance of the place, and quitted the hut.

Without, the scene was wintry: but, as is usual in the Alps let what may be the season, its features of grand and imposing sublimity were prominent The day was among the peaks above them, while the shades of night still lay upon the valleys, forming a landscape like that exquisite and poetical picture of the lower world, which Guido has given in the celebrated al-fresco painting of Aurora. The ravines and glens were covered with snow, but the sides of the rugged rocks were bare in their eternal hue of ferruginous brown. The little knoll on which the Refuge stood was also nearly naked, the wind having driven the light particles of the snow into the ravine of the path. The air of the morning is keen at that great height even in midsummer, and the shivering girls drew their mantles about them, though they breathed the clear, elastic, inspiring element with pleasure. The storm was entirely past, and the pure sapphire-colored sky was in lovely contrast with the shadows beneath, raising their thoughts naturally to that heaven which shone in a peace and glory so much in harmony with the ordinary images we shadow forth of the abode of the blessed. Adelheid pressed the hand of Christine, and they knelt together, bowing their heads to a rock. As fervent, pure, and sincere orisons ascended to God, from these pious and innocent spirits, as it belongs to poor mortality to offer.

This general, and in their peculiar situation especial, duty performed, the gentle girls felt more assured. Relieved of a heavy and imperative obligation, they ventured to look about them with greater confidence. Another building, similar in form and material to that in which their companions were still sleeping, stood on the same swell of rock, and their first inquiries naturally took that direction. The entrance, or outlet to this hut, was an orifice that resembled a window rather than a door. They moved cautiously to the spot, looking into the gloomy, cavern-like room, as timidly as the hare throws his regards about him before he ventures from his cover. Four human forms were reposing deep in the vault, with their backs sustained against the walls. They slept profoundly too, for the curious but startled girls gazed at them long, and retired without causing them to awake.

"We have not been alone on the mountain in this terrible night," whispered Adelheid, gently urging the trembling Christine away from the spot; "thou seest that other travellers have been taking their rest near us; most probably after perils and fatigues like our own."

Christine drew closer to the side of her more experienced friend, like the young of the dove hovering near the mother-bird when first venturing from the nest, and they returned to the refuge they had quitted, for the cold was still so intense as to render its protection grateful. At the door they were met by Pierre, the vigilant old man having awakened as soon as the light crossed his eyes.

"We are not alone here;" said Adelheid, pointing to the other stone-covered roof--"there are travellers sleeping in yonder building, too."

"Their sleep will be long, lady;" answered the guide, shaking his head solemnly. "With two of them it has already lasted a twelvemonth and the third has slept where you saw him since the fall of the avalanche in the last days of April."

Adelheid recoiled a step, for his meaning was too plain to be misunderstood. After looking at her gentle companion, she demanded if those they had seen were in truth the bodies of travellers who had perished on the mountain.

"Of no other, lady," returned Pierre, "This hut is for the living--that for the dead. So near are the two to each other, when men journey on these wild rocks in winter. I have known him who passed a short and troubled night here, begin a sleep in the other before the turn of the day that is not only deep enough, but which will last for ever. One of the three that thou hast just seen was a guide like myself: he was buried in the falling snow at the spot where the path leaves the plain of Velan below us. Another is a pilgrim that perished in as clear a night as ever shone on St. Bernard, and merely for having taking a cup too much to cheer his way. The third is a poor vine-dresser that was coming from Piedmont into our Swiss valleys to follow his calling, when death overtook him in an ill-advised slumber, in which he was so unwise as to indulge at nightfall. I found his body myself on that naked rock, the day after we had drunk together in friendship at Aoste, and with my own hands was he placed among the others."

"And such is the burial a Christian gets in this inhospitable country!"

"What would you, lady!--'tis the chance of the poor and the unknown. Those that have friends are sought and found; but those that die without leaving traces of their origin fare as you see. The spade is useless among these rocks; and then it is better that the body should remain where it may be seen and claimed, than it should be put out of sight. The good fathers, and all of note, are taken down into the valleys, where there is earth and are decently buried; while the poor and the stranger are housed in this vault, which is a better cover than many of them knew while living. Ay, there are three Christians there, who were all lately walking the earth in the flesh, gay and active as any."

"The bodies are four in number!"

Pierre looked surprised; he mused a little, and continued his employment.

"Then another has perished. The time may come when my own blood shall freeze. This is a fate the guide must ever keep in mind, for he is exposed to it at an hour and a season that he knows not!"

Adelheid pursued the subject no farther. She remembered to have heard that the pure atmosphere of the mountain prevented that offensive decay which is usually associated with the idea of death, and the usage lost some of its horror in the recollection.

In the mean time the remainder of the party awoke, and were collecting before the refuge. The mules were led forth and saddled, the baggage was loaded, and Pierre was calling upon the travellers to mount, when Uberto and Nettuno came leaping down the path in company, running side by side in excellent fellowship. The movements of the dogs were of a nature to attract the attention of Pierre and the muleteers, who predicted that they should soon see some of the servants of the hospice. The result showed the familiarity of the guide with his duty, for he had scarce ventured this opinion, when a party from the gorge on the summit of the mountain was seen wading through the snow, along the path that led towards the Refuge, with Father Xavier at its head.

The explanations were brief and natural. After conducting the travellers to the shelter, and passing most of the night in their company, at the approach of dawn Uberto had returned to the convent, always attended by his friend Nettuno. Here he communicated to the monks, by signs which they who were accustomed to the habits of the animal were not slow in interpreting, that travellers were on the mountain. The good clavier knew that the party of the Baron de Willading was about to cross the Col, for he had hurried home to be in readiness to receive them; and foreseeing the probability that they hod been overtaken by the storm of the previous night, he was foremost in joining the servants who went forth to their succor. The little flask of cordial, too, had been removed from the collar of Uberto, leaving no doubt of its contents having been used; and, as nothing was more probable than that the travellers should seek a cover, their steps were directed to wards the Refuge as a matter of course.

The worthy clavier made this explanation with eyes that glistened with moisture, occasionally interrupting himself to murmur a prayer of thanksgiving. He passed from one of the party to the other, not even neglecting the muleteers, examining their limbs, and more especially their ears, to see that they had quite escaped the influence of the frost, and was only happy when assured by his own observation that the terrible danger they had run was not likely to be attended by any injurious consequences.

"We are accustomed to see many accidents of this nature," he said, smilingly, when the examination was satisfactorily ended, "and practice has made us quick of sight in these matters. The blessed Maria be praised, and adoration to her holy Son, that you have all got through the night so well! There is a warm breakfast in readiness in the convent kitchen, and, one solemn duty performed, we will go up the rocks to enjoy it. The little building near us is the last earthly abode of those who perish on this side the mountain, and whose remains are unclaimed. None of our canons pass the spot without offering a prayer in behalf of their souls. Kneel with me, then, you that have so much reason to be grateful to God, and join in the petition."

Father Xavier knelt on the rocks, and all the Catholics of the party united with him in the prayer for the dead. The Baron de Willading, his daughter and their attendants stood uncovered the while for though their Protestant opinions rejected such a mediation as useless, they deeply felt the solemnity and holy character of the sacrifice. The clavier arose with a countenance that was beaming and bright as the morning sun which, just at that moment, appeared above the summits of the Alps, casting its genial and bland warmth on the group, the brown huts, and the mountain side.

"Thou art a heretic," he said affectionately to Adelheid, in whom he felt the interest, to which her youth and beauty, and the great danger they had so lately run in company, very naturally gave birth. "Thou art an impenitent heretic, but we will hot cast thee off; notwithstanding thy obstinacy and crimes, thou seest that the saints can interest themselves in the behalf of obstinate sinners, or thou and all with thee would have surely been lost."

This was said in a way to draw a smile from Adelheid, who received his accusations as so many friendly and playful reproaches. As a token of peace between them, she offered her hand to the monk, with a request that he would aid her in getting into the saddle.

"Dost thou remark the brutes!" said the Signor Grimaldi, pointing to the animals, who were gravely seated before the window of the bone-house, with relaxed jaws, keeping their eyes riveted on its entrance, or window. "Thy St. Bernard dogs, father, seem trained to serve a Christian in all ways, whether living or dead."

"Their quiet attitude and decent attention might indeed justify such a remark! Didst thou ever note such conduct in Uberto before?" returned the Augustine, addressing the servants of the convent, for the actions of the animals were a study and a subject of great interest to all of St. Bernard.

"They tell me that another fresh body has been put into the house, since I last came down the mountain" remarked Pierre, who was quietly disposing of a mule in a manner more favorable for Adelheid to mount: "the mastiff scents the dead. It was this that brought him to the Refuge last night, Heaven be praised for the mercy!"

This was said with the indifference that habit is apt to create, for the usage of leaving bodies uninterred had no influence on the feelings of the guide, but it did not the less strike those who had descended from the convent.

"Thou art the last that came down thyself," said one of the servants; "nor have any come up, but those who are now safe in the convent, taking their rest after last night's tempest."

"How canst utter this idle nonsense, Henri, when a fresh body is in the house! This lady counted them but now, and there are four; three was the number that I showed the Piedmontese noble whom I led from Aoste, the day thou meanest!"

"Look to this;" said the clavier, turning abruptly away from Adelheid, whom he was on the point of helping into the saddle.

The men entered the gloomy vault, whence they soon returned bearing a body, which they placed with its back against the wall of the building, in the open air. A cloak was over the head and face, as if the garment had been thus arranged to exclude the cold.

"He hath perished the past night, mistaking the bone-house for the Refuge!" exclaimed the clavier: "Maria and her Son intercede for his soul!"

"Is the unfortunate man truly dead?" asked the Genoese with more of worldly care, and with greater practice in the investigation of facts. "The frozen sleep long before the currents of life cease entirely to run."

The Augustine commanded his followers to remove the cloak, though with little hope that the suggestion of the other would prove true. When the cloth was raised, the collapsed and pallid features of one in whom life was unequivocally extinct were exposed to view. Unlike most of those that perish of cold, who usually sink into the long sleep of eternity by a gradual numbness and a slowly increasing unconsciousness, there was an expression of pain in the countenance of the stranger which seemed to announce that his parting struggles had been severe, and that he had resigned his hold of that mysterious principle which connects the soul to the body, with anguish. A shriek from Christine interrupted the awful gaze of the travellers, and drew their looks in another direction. She was clinging to the neck of Adelheid, her arms appearing to writhe with the effort to incorporate heir two bodies into one.

"It is he! It is he!" muttered the frightened and half frantic girl, burying her pale face in the bosom of her friend. "Oh! God!--it is he!"

"Of whom art thou speaking, dear?" demanded the wondering, but not the less awe-struck, Adelheid, believing that the weakened nerves of the poor girl were unstrung by the horror of the spectacle--"it is a traveller like ourselves, that has unhappily perished in the very storm from which, by the kindness of Providence, we have been permitted to escape. Thou shouldst not tremble thus; for, fearful as it is, he is in a condition to which we all must come."

"So soon! so soon! so suddenly--oh! it is he!" Adelheid, alarmed at the violence of Christine's feelings, was quite at a loss to account for them, when the relapsed grasp and the dying voice showed that her friend had fainted. Sigismund was one of the first to come to the assistance of his sister, who was soon restored to consciousness by the ordinary applications. In order to effect the cure she was borne to a rock at some little distance from the rest of the party, where none of the other sex presumed to come, with the exception of her brother. The latter staid but a moment, for a stir in the little party at the bone-house induced him to go thither. His return was slow, thoughtful, and sad.

"The feelings of our poor Christine have been unhinged, and she is too easily excited to undergo the vicissitudes of a journey" observed Adelheid, after having announced the restoration of the sufferer to her senses; "have you seen her thus before?"

"No angel could be more tranquil and happy than my cruelly treated sister was until this last disgrace;--you appear ignorant yourself of the melancholy truth?"

Adelheid looked her surprise.

"The dead man is he who was so lately intended to be the master of my sister's happiness, and the wounds on his body leave little doubt that he has been murdered."

The emotion of Christine needed no further explanation.

"Murdered!" repeated Adelheid, in a whisper.

"Of that frightful truth there can be no question. Your father and our friends are now employed in making the examinations which may hereafter be useful in discovering the authors of the deed."

"Sigismund?"

"What wouldst thou, Adelheid?"

"Thou hast felt resentment against this unfortunate man?"

"I deny it not: could a brother feel otherwise?"

"But now--now that God hath so fearfully visited him?"

"From my soul I forgive him. Had we met in Italy, whither I knew he was going--but this is foolish."

"Worse than that, Sigismund."

"From my inmost soul I pardon him. I never thought him worthy of her whose simple affection, were won by the first signs of his pretended into rest; but I could not wish him so cruel and sudden an end. May God have mercy on him, as he is pardoned by me!"

Adelheid received the silent pressure of the hand which followed with pious satisfaction. They then separated, he to join the group that was collected around the body, and she to take her station again near Christine. The former, however, was met by the Signor Grimaldi, who urged his immediate departure with the females for the convent, promising that the rest of the travellers should follow as soon as the present melancholy duty was ended. As Sigismund had no wish to be a party in what was going on, and there was reason to think his sister would be spared much pain by quitting the spot, he gladly acquiesced in the proposal. Immediate steps were taken for its accomplishment.

Christine mounted her mule, in obedience to her brother's desire, quietly, and without remonstrance; but her death-like countenance and fixed eye betrayed the violence of the shock she had received. During the whole of the ride to the convent she spoke not, and, as those around her felt for, and understood, her distress, the little cavalcade could not have been more melancholy and silent had it borne with it the body of the slain. In an hour they reached the long sought for and so anxiously desired place of rest.

While this disposition of the feebler portion of the party was making, a different scene had taken place near what have been already so well called the houses of the living and the dead. As there existed no human habitation within several leagues of the abode of the Augustines on either side of the mountain, and as the paths were much frequented in the summer, the monks exercised a species of civil jurisdiction in such cases as required a prompt exercise of justice, or a necessary respect for those forms that might be important in its ad ministration hereafter before the more regular authorities. It was no sooner known, therefore, that there was reason to suspect an act of violence had been committed, than the good clavier set seriously about taking the necessary steps to authenticate all those circumstances that could be accurately ascertained.

The identity of the body as that of Jacques Colis, a small but substantial proprietor of the country of Vaud, was quickly established. To this fact not only several of the travellers could testify, but he was also known to one of the muleteers, of whom he had engaged a beast to be left at Aoste and, it will also be remembered, he had been seen by Pierre at Martigny, while making his arrangements to puss the mountain. Of the mule there were no other traces than a few natural signs around the building, but which might equally be attributed to the beasts that still awaited the leisure of the travellers. The manner in which the unhappy man had come by his death admitted of no dispute. There were several wounds in the body, and a knife, of the sort then much used by travellers of an ordinary class, was left sticking in his back in a position to render it impossible to attribute the end of the sufferer to suicide. The clothes, too, exhibited proofs of a struggle, for they were torn and soiled, but nothing had been taken away. A little gold was found in the pockets, and though in no great plenty still enough to weaken the first impression that there had also been a robbery.

"This is wonderful!" observed the good clavier as he noted the last circumstance; "the dross which leads so many souls to damnation has been neglected while Christian blood has been shed! This seems an act of vengeance rather than of cupidity. Let us now examine if any proofs are to be found of the scene of this tragedy."

The search was unsuccessful. The whole of the surrounding region being composed of ferruginous rocks and their _debris_, it would not, indeed, have been an easy matter to trace the march of an army by their footsteps. The stain of blood, however, was nowhere discoverable, except on the spot where the body had been found. The house itself furnished no particular evidence of the bloody scene of which it had been a witness. The bones of those who had died long before were lying on the stones, it is true, broken and scattered; but, as the curious were wont to stop, and sometimes to enter among and handle these remains of mortality, there was nothing new or peculiar in their present condition.

The interior of the dead-house was obscure, and suited, in this particular at least, to its solemn office. While making the latter part of their examination, the monk and the two nobles, who began to feel a lively interest in the late event, stood before the window, gazing in at the gloomy but instructive scene. One body was so placed as to receive a few of the direct rays of the morning light, and it was consequently much more conspicuous than the rest, though even this was a dark and withered mummy that presented scarcely a vestige; of the being it had been. Like all the others whose parts still clung together, it had been placed against the wall, in the attitude of one that is seated, with the head fallen forward. The latter circumstance had brought the blackened and shrivelled face into the line of light. It had the ghastly grin of death, the features being distorted by the process of evaporation, and was altogether a revolting but salutary monitor of the common lot.

"'Tis the body of the poor vine-dresser;" remarked the monk, more accustomed to the spectacle than his companions, who had shrunk from the sight; "he unwisely slept on yonder naked rock, and it proved to him the sleep of death. There have been many masses for his soul, but what is left of his material remains still lie unclaimed. But--how is this! Pierre, thou hast lately passed this place; what was the number of the bodies, at thy last visit?"

"Three, reverend clavier; and yet the ladies spoke of four. I looked for the fourth when in the building, but there appeared none fresh, except this of poor Jacques Colis."

"Come hither, and say if there do not appear to be two in the far corner--here, where the body of thy old comrade the guide was placed, from respect for his calling; surely, there at least is a change in its position!"

Pierre approached, and taking off his cap in reverence, he leaned forward in the building, so as to exclude the external light from his eyes.

"Father!" he said, drawing back in surprise, "there is truly another; though I overlooked it when we entered the place."

"This must be examined into! The crime may be greater than we had believed!"

The servants of the convent and Pierre, whose long services rendered him a familiar of the brotherhood, now re-entered the building, while those without impatiently awaited the result. A cry from the interior prepared the latter for some fresh subject of horror, when Pierre and his companion quickly reappeared, dragging a living man into the open air. When the light permitted, those who knew him recognized the mild demeanor, the subdued look, and the uneasy, distrustful glance of Balthazar.

The first sensation of the spectators was that of open amazement; but dark suspicion followed. The baron, the two Genoese, and the monk, had all been witnesses of the scene in the great square of Vevey. The person of the headsman had become so well known to them by the passage on the lake and the event just alluded to, that there was not a moment of doubt touching his identity, and, coupled with the circumstances of that morning, there remained little more that the clue was now found to the cause of the murder.

We shall not stop to relate the particulars of the examination. It was short, reserved, and had the character of an investigation instituted more for the sake of form, than from any incertitude there could exist on the subject of the facts. When the necessary-inquiries were ended, the two nobles mounted. Father Xavier led the way, and the whole party proceeded towards the summit of the pass, leading Balthazar a prisoner, and leaving the body of Jacques Colis to its final rest, in that place where so many human forms had evaporated into air before him, unless those who had felt an interest in him in life should see fit to claim his remains.

The ascent between the Refuge and the summit of St. Bernard is much more severe than on any other part of the road. The end of the convent, overhanging the northern brow of the gorge, and looking like a mass of that ferruginous and melancholy rock which gave the whole region so wild and so unearthly an aspect, soon became visible, carved and moulded into the shape of a rude human habitation. The last pitch was so steep as to be formed into a sort of stair-way, up which the groaning mules toiled with difficulty. This labor overcome, the party stood on the highest point of the pass. Another minute brought them to the door of the convent.

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