Chapter 11





Fortune had smil'd upon Guelberto's birth.
The heir of Valdespesa's rich domain;
An only child, he grew in years and worth,
And well repaid a father's anxious pain.

Southey.


As Sigismund uttered this communication, so terrible to the ear of his
listener, he arose and fled from the room. The possession of a kingdom
would not have tempted him to remain and note troubled air and rapid
strides as he passed them, but, too simple to suspect more than the
ordinary impetuosity of youth, he succeeded in getting through the
inferior gate of the castle and into the fields, without attracting any
embarrassing attention to his movements. Here he began to breathe more
freely, and the load which had nearly choked his respiration became
lightened. For half an hour the young man paced the greensward scarcely
conscious whither he went, until he found that his steps had again led him
beneath the window of the knights' hall. Glancing an eye upward, he saw
Adelheid still seated at the balcony, and apparently yet alone. He thought
she had been weeping, and he cursed the weakness which had kept him from
effecting the often-renewed resolution to remove himself, and his cruel
fortunes, for ever from before her mind. A second look, however, showed
him that he was again beckoned to ascend! The revolutions in the purposes
of lovers are sudden and easily effected; and Sigismund, through whose
mind a dozen ill-digested plans of placing the sea between himself and her
he loved had just been floating, was now hurriedly retracing his steps to
her presence.

Adelheid had necessarily been educated under the influence of the
prejudices of the age and of the country in which she lived. The existence
of the office of headsman in Berne, and the nature of its hereditary
duties, were well known to her: and, though superior to the inimical
feeling which had so lately been exhibited against the luckless Balthazar,
she had certainly never anticipated a shock so cruel as was now produced,
by abruptly learning that this despised and persecuted being was the
father of the youth to whom she had yielded her virgin affections. When
the words which proclaimed the connexion had escaped the lips of
Sigismund, she listened like one who fancied that her ears deceived her.
She had prepared herself to learn that he derived his being from some
peasant or ignoble artisan, and, once or twice, as he drew nearer to the
fatal declaration, awkward glimmerings of a suspicion that some repulsive
moral unworthiness was connected with his origin troubled her imagination;
but her apprehensions could not, by possibility, once turn in the
direction of the revolting truth. It was some time before she was able to
collect her thoughts, or to reflect on the course it most became her to
pursue. But, as has been seen, it was long before she could summon the
self-command to request what she now saw was doubly necessary, another
meeting with her lover. As both had thought of nothing but his last words
during the short separation, there appeared no abruptness in the manner in
which he resumed the discourse, on seating himself at her side, exactly as
if they had not parted at all.

"The secret has been torn from me, Adelheid. The headsman of the canton is
my father; were the fact publicly known, the heartless and obdurate laws
would compel me to be his successor. He has no other child, except a
gentle girl--one innocent and kind as thou."

Adelheid covered her face with both her hands, as if to shut out a view of
the horrible truth. Perhaps an instinctive reluctance to permit her
companion to discover how great a blow had been given by this avowal of
his birth, had also its influence in producing the movement. They who have
passed the period of youth, and who can recall those days of inexperience
and hope, when the affections are fresh and the heart is untainted with
too much communion with the world,--and, especially, they who know of what
a delicate compound of the imaginative and the real the master-passion is
formed, how sensitively it regards all that can reflect credit on the
beloved object, and with what ingenuity it endeavors to find plausible
excuses for every blot that may happen, either by accident or demerit, to
tarnish the lustre of a picture that fancy has so largely aided in
drawing, will understand the rude nature of the shock that she had
received. But Adelheid de Willading, though a woman in the liveliness and
fervor of her imagination, as well as in the proneness to conceive her own
ingenuous conceptions to be more founded in reality than a sterner view of
things might possibly have warranted, was a woman also in the more
generous qualities of the heart, and in those enduring principles, which
seem to have predisposed the better part of the sex to make the heaviest
sacrifices rather than be false to their affections. While her frame
shuddered, therefore, with the violence and abruptness of the emotions she
had endured, dawnings of the right gleamed upon her pure mind, and it was
not long before she was able to contemplate the truth with the steadiness
of principle, though it might, at the same time, have been with much of
the lingering weakness of humanity. When she lowered her hands, she looked
towards the mute and watchful Sigismund, with a smile that caused the
deadly paleness of her features to resemble a gleam of the sun lighting
upon a spotless peak of her native mountains.

"It would be vain to endeavor to conceal from thee, Sigismund," she said,
"that I could wish this were not so. I will confess even more--that when
the truth first broke upon me, thy repeated services, and, what is even
less pardonable, thy tried worth, were for an instant forgotten in the
reluctance I felt to admit that my fate could ever be united with one so
unhappily situated. There are moments when prejudices and habits are
stronger than reason; but their triumph is short in well-intentioned
minds. The terrible injustice of our laws have never struck me with such
force before, though last night, while those wretched travellers were so
eager for the blood of--of--?"

"My father, Adelheid."

"Of the author of thy being, Sigismund," she continued, with a solemnity
that proved to the young man how deeply she reverenced the tie, "I was
compelled to see that society might be cruelly unjust; but now I find its
laws and prohibitions visiting one like thee, so far from joining in its
oppression, my soul revolts against the wrong."

"Thanks--thanks--a thousand thanks!" returned the young man, fervently. "I
did not expect less than this from thee, Mademoiselle de Willading."

"If thou didst not expect more--far more, Sigismund," resumed the maiden,
her ashen hue brightened to crimson, "thou hast scarcely been less unjust
than the world; and I will add, thou hast never understood that Adelheid
de Willading, whose name is uttered with so cold a form. We all have
moments of weakness; moments when the seductions of life, the worthless
ties which bind together the thoughtless and selfish in what are called
the interests of the world, appear of more value than aught else. I am no
visionary, to fancy imaginary and factitious obligations superior to those
which nature and wisdom have created--for if there be much unjustifiable
cruelty in the practices, there is also much that is wise in the
ordinances, of society--or to think that a wayward fairy is to be indulged
at any and every expense to the feelings and opinions of others. On the
contrary; I well know that so long as men exist in the condition in which
they are, it is little more than common prudence to respect their habits;
and that ill-assorted unions, in general, contain in themselves a
dangerous enemy to happiness. Had I always known thy history, dread of the
consequences, or those cold forms which protect the fortunate would
probably have interposed to prevent either from learning much of the
other's character.--I say not this, Sigismund, as by thy eye I see thou
wouldst think, in reproach for any deception, for I well know the
accidental nature of our acquaintance, and that the intimacy was forced
upon thee by our own importunate gratitude, but simply, and in explanation
of my own feelings. As it is, we are not to judge of our situation by
ordinary rules, and I am not now to decide on your pretensions to my hand
merely as the daughter of the Baron de Willading receiving a proposal from
one whose birth is not noble, but as Adelheid should weigh the claims of
Sigismund, subject to some diminution of advantages, if thou wilt, that is
perhaps greater than she had at first anticipated."

"Dost thou consider the acceptance of my hand possible, after what thou
knowest!" exclaimed the young man, in open wonder.

"So far from regarding the question in that manner, I ask myself if it
will be right--if it be possible, to reject the preserver of my own life,
the preserver of my father's life, Sigismund Steinbach, because he is the
son of one that men persecute?"

"Adelheid!"

"Do not anticipate my words," said the maiden calmly, but in a way to
check his impatience by the quiet dignity of her manner, "This is an
important, I might say a solemn decision, and it has been presented to me
suddenly and without preparation. Thou wilt not think the worse of me, for
asking time to reflect before I give the pledge-that in my eyes, will be
for ever sacred. My father, believing thee to be of obscure origin, and
thoroughly conscious of thy worth, dear Sigismund, authorized me to speak
as I did in the beginning of our interview; but my father may possibly
think the conditions of his consent altered by this unhappy exposure of
the truth. It is meet that I tell him all, for thou knowest I must abide
by his decision. This thine own sense and filial piety will approve."

In spite of the strong objectionable facts that he had just revealed, hope
had begun to steal upon the wishes of the young man, as he listened to the
consoling words of the single-minded and affectionate Adelheid. It would
scarcely have been possible for a youth so endowed by nature, and one so
inevitably conscious of his own value, though so modest in its exhibition,
not to feel encouraged by her ingenuous and frank admission, as she
betrayed his influence over her happiness in the undisguised and simple
manner related. But the intention to appeal to her father caused him to
view the subject more dispassionately, for his strong sense was not slow
in pointing out the difference between the two judges, in a case like his.

"Trouble him not, Adelheid; the consciousness that his prudence denies
what a generous feeling might prompt him to bestow, may render him
unhappy. It is impossible that Melchior de Willading should consent to
give an only child to a son of the headsman of his canton. At some other
time, when the recollections of the late storm shall be less vivid, thine
own reason will approve of his decision."

His companion, who was thoughtfully leaning her spotless brow on her hand,
did not appeal to hear his words. She had recovered from the shock given
by the sudden announcement of his origin, and was now musing intently, and
with cooler discrimination, on the commencement of their acquaintance, its
progress and all its little incidents, down to the two grave events which
had so gradually and firmly cemented the sentiments of esteem and
admiration in the stronger and indelible tie of affection.

"If thou art the son of him thou namest, why art thou known by the name of
Steinbach, when Balthazar bears another?" demanded Adelheid anxious to
seize even the faintest hold of hope.

"It was my intention to conceal nothing, but to lay before thee the
history of my life, with all the reasons that may have influenced my
conduct," returned Sigismund: "at some other time, when both are in a
calmer state of mind, I shall dare to entreat a hearing--"

"Delay is unnecessary--it might even be improper. It is my duty to explain
every thing to my father, and he may wish to know why thou hast not always
appeared what thou art. Do not fancy, Sigismund, that I distrust thy
motive, but the wariness of the old and the confidence of the young have
so little in common!--I would rather that thou told me now."

He yielded to the mild earnestness of her manner, and to the sweet, but
sad, smile with which she seconded the appeal.

"If thou wilt hear the melancholy history, Adelheid," he said, "there is
no sufficient reason why I should wish to postpone the little it will be
necessary to say. You are probably familiar with the laws of the canton, I
mean those cruel ordinances by which a particular family is condemned, for
a better word can scarcely be found, to discharge the duties of this
revolting office. This duty may have been a privilege in the dark ages
but it is now become a tax that none, who have been educated with better
hopes, can endure to pay. My father, trained from infancy to expect the
employment, and accustomed to its discharge in contemplation, succeeded to
his parent while yet young; and, though formed by nature a meek and even a
compassionate man, he has never shrunk from his bloody tasks, whenever
required to fulfil them by the command of his superiors. But, touched by a
sentiment of humanity, it was his wish to avert from me what his better
reason led him to think the calamity of our race. I am the eldest born,
and, strictly, I was the child most liable to be called to assume the
office, but, as I have heard, the tender love of my mother induced her to
suggest a plan by which I, at least, might be rescued from the odium that
had so long been attached to our name. I was secretly conveyed from the
house while yet an infant; a feigned death concealed the pious fraud, and
thus far, Heaven be praised! the authorities are ignorant of my birth!"

"And thy mother, Sigismund; I have great respect for that noble mother,
who, doubtless, is endowed with more than her sex's firmness and
constancy, since she must have sworn faith and love to thy father, knowing
his duties and the hopelessness of their being evaded? I feel a reverence
for a woman so superior to the weaknesses, and yet so true to the real and
best affections, of her sex!"

The young man smiled so painfully as to cause his enthusiastic companion
to regret that she had put the question.

"My mother is certainly a woman not only to be loved, but in many
particulars deeply to be revered. My poor and noble mother has a thousand
excellencies, being a most tender parent, with a heart so kind that it
would grieve her to see injury done even to the meanest living thing. She
was not a woman, surely, intended by God to be the mother of a line of
executioners!"

"Thou seest, Sigismund," said Adelheid, nearly breathless in the desire to
seek an excuse for her own predilections, and to lessen the mental agony
he endured--"thou seest that one gentle and excellent woman, at least,
could trust her happiness to thy family. No doubt she was the daughter of
some worthy and just-viewing burgher of the canton, that had educated his
child to distinguish between misfortune and crime?"

"She was an only child and an heiress, like thy self, Adelheid;" he
answered, looking about him as if he sought some object on which he might
cast part of the bitterness that loaded his heart. "Thou art not less the
Beloved and cherished of thine own parent than was my excellent mother of
her's!"

"Sigismund, thy manner is startling!--What wouldst thou say?"

"Neufchâtel, and other countries besides Berne, have their privileged! My
mother was the only child of the headsman of the first. Thus thou seest,
Adelheid, that I boast my quarterings as well as another. God be praised!
we are not legally compelled, however, to butcher the condemned of any
country but our own!"

The wild bitterness with which this was uttered, and the energy of his
language, struck thrilling chords on every nerve of his listener.

"So many honors should not be unsupported;" he resumed. "We are rich, for
people of humble wishes, and have ample means of living without the
revenues of our charge--I love to put forth our long-acquired honors! The
means of a respectable livelihood are far from being wanted. I have told
you of the kind intentions of my mother to redeem one of her children, at
least, from stigma which weighed upon us all, and the birth of a second
son enabled her to effect this charitable purpose, without attracting
attention. I was nursed and educated apart, for many years, in ignorance
of my birth. At a suitable age, notwithstanding the early death of my
brother, I was sent to seek advancement in the service of the house of
Austria, under the feigned name I bear. I will not tell thee the anguish I
felt, Adelheid, when the truth was at length revealed! Of all the
cruelties inflicted by society, there is none so unrighteous in its nature
as the stigma it entails in the succession of crime or misfortune: of all
its favors, none can find so little justification, in right and reason, as
the privileges accorded to the accident of descent."

"And yet we are much accustomed to honor those that come of an ancient
line, and to see some part of the glory of the ancestor even in the most
remote descendant."

"The more remote, the greater is the world's deference. What better proof
can we have of the world's weakness? Thus the immediate child of the hero,
he whose blood is certain, who bears the image of the father in his face,
who has listened to his counsels, and may be supposed to have derived, at
least, some portion of his greatness from the nearness of his origin, is
less a prince than he who has imbibed the current through a hundred vulgar
streams, and, were truth but known, may have no natural claim at all upon
the much-prized blood! This comes of artfully leading the mind to
prejudices, and of a vicious longing in man to forget his origin and
destiny, by wishing to be more than nature ever intended he should
become."

"Surely, Sigismund, there is something justifiable in the sentiment of
desiring to belong to the good and noble!"

"If good and noble were the same. Thou hast well designated the feeling;
so long as it is truly a sentiment, it is not only excusable but wise; for
who would not wish to come of the brave, and honest, and learned, or by
what other greatness they may be known?--it is wise, since the legacy of
his virtues is perhaps the dearest incentive that a good man has for
struggling against the currents of baser interest; but what hope is left
to one like me, who finds himself so placed that he can neither inherit
nor transmit aught but disgrace! I do not affect to despise the advantages
of birth, simply because I do not possess them; I only complain that
artful combinations have perverted what should be sentiment and taste,
into a narrow and vulgar prejudice, by which the really ignoble enjoy
privileges greater than those perhaps who are worthy of the highest honors
man can bestow."

Adelheid had encouraged the digression which, with one less gifted with
strong good sense than Sigismund, might have only served to wound his
pride, but she perceived that he eased his mind by thus drawing on his
reason, and by setting up that which should be in opposition to that which
was.

"Thou knowest," she answered, "that neither my father nor I am disposed to
lay much stress on the opinions of the world, as it concerns thee."

"That is, neither will insist on nobility; but will either consent to
share the obloquy of a union with an hereditary executioner?"

"Thou hast not yet related all it may be necessary to know that we may
decide."

"There is left little to explain. The expedient of my kind parents has
thus far succeeded. Their two surviving children, my sister and myself,
were snatched, for a time at least, from their accursed fortune, while my
poor brother, who promised little, was left, by a partiality I will not
stop to examine, to pass as the inheritor of our infernal privileges--
Nay, pardon, dearest Adelheid, I will be more cool; but death has saved
the youth from the execrable duties, and I am now the only male child of
Balthazar--yes," he added, laughing frightfully, "I, too have now a narrow
monopoly of all the honors of our house!"

"Thou--thou, Sigismund--with thy habits, thy education, thy feelings, thou
surely canst not be required to discharge the duties of this horrible
office!"

"It is easy to see that my high privileges do not charm you, Mademoiselle
de Willading; nor can I wonder at the taste. My chief surprise should be,
that you so long tolerate an executioner in your presence."

"Did I not know and understand the bitterness of feeling natural to one so
placed, this language would cruelly hurt me, Sigismund; but thou canst not
truly mean there is a real danger of thy ever being called to execute this
duty? Should there be the chance of such a calamity, may not the influence
of my father avert it? He is not without weight in the councils of the
canton."

"At present his friendship need not be taxed, for none but my parents, my
sister, and thou, Adelheid, are acquainted with the facts I have just
related. My poor sister is an artless, but an unhappy girl, for the
well-intentioned design of our mother has greatly disqualified her from
bearing the truth, as she might have done, had it been kept constantly
before her eyes. To the world, a young kinsman of my father appears
destined to succeed him, and there the matter must stand until fortune
shall decide differently. As respects my poor sister, there is some little
hope that the evil may be altogether averted. She is on the point of a
marriage here at Vévey, that may be the means of concealing her origin in
new ties. As for me, time must decide my fate."

"Why should the truth be ever known!" exclaimed Adelheid, nearly gasping
for breath, in her eagerness to propose some expedient that should rescue
Sigismund for ever from so odious an office.

"Thou sayest that there are ample means in thy family--relinquish all to
this youth, on condition that he assume thy place!"

"I would gladly beggar myself to be quit of it--"

"Nay, thou wilt not be a beggar while there is wealth among the de
Willadings. Let the final decision, in respect to other things, be what it
may, this can we at least promise!"

"My sword will prevent me from being under the necessity of accepting the
boon thou wouldst offer. With this good sword I can always command an
honorable existence, should Providence save me from the disgrace of
exchanging it for that of the executioner. But there exists an obstacle of
which thou hast not yet heard. My sister, who has certainly no admiration
for the honors that have humiliated our race for so many generations--I
might say ages--have we not ancient honors, Adelheid, as well as thou?--my
sister is contracted to one who bargains for eternal secrecy on this
point, as the condition of his accepting the hand and ample dowry of one
of the gentlest of human beings! Thou seest that others are not as
generous as thyself, Adelheid! My father, anxious to dispose of his child,
has consented to the terms and as the youth who is next in succession to
the family-honors is little disposed to accept them, and has already some
suspicion of the deception as respects her, I may be compelled to appear
in order to protect the offspring of my unoffending sister from the
curse."

This was assailing Adelheid in a point where she was the weakest. One of
her generous temperament and self-denying habits could scarce entertain
the wish of exacting that from another which she was not willing to
undergo herself, and the hope that had just been reviving in her heart was
nearly extinguished by the discovery. Still she was so much in the habit
of feeling under the guidance of her excellent sense, and it was so
natural to cling to her just wishes, while there was a reasonable chance
of their being accomplished, that she did not despair.

"Thy sister and her future husband know her birth, and understand the
chances they run."

"She knows all this, and such is her generosity, that she is not disposed
to betray me in order to serve herself. But this self-denial forms an
additional obligation on my part to declare myself the wretch I am. I
cannot say that my sister is accustomed to regard our long-endured
fortunes with all the horror I feel, for she has been longer acquainted
with the facts, and the domestic habits of her sex have left her less
exposed to the encounter of the world's hatred, and perhaps she is partly
ignorant of all the odium we sustain. My long absences in foreign services
delayed the confidence as respects myself, while the yearnings of a mother
towards an only daughter caused her to be received into the family, though
still in secret, several years before I was told the truth. She is also
much my junior; and all these causes, with some difference in our
education, have less disposed her to misery than I am; for while my
father, with a cruel kindness, had me well and even liberally instructed,
Christine was taught as better became the hopes and origin of both. Now
tell me, Adelheid, that thou hatest me for my parentage, and despisest me
for having so long dared to intrude on thy company, with the full
consciousness of what I am for ever present to my thoughts!"

"I like not to hear thee make these bitter allusions to an accident of
this nature, Sigismund. Were I to tell thee that I do not feel this
circumstance with nearly, if not quite, as much poignancy as thyself,"
added the ingenuous girl, with a noble frankness, "I should do injustice
to my gratitude and to my esteem for thy character. But there is more
elasticity in the heart of woman than in that of thy imperious and proud
sex. So far from thinking of thee as thou wouldst fain believe, I see
naught but what is natural and justifiable in thy reserve. Remember, thou
hast not tempted my ears by professions and prayers, as women are commonly
entreated, but that the interest I feel in thee has been modestly and
fairly won. I can neither say nor hear more at present for this unexpected
announcement has in some degree unsettled my mind. Leave me to reflect on
what I ought to do, and rest assured that thou canst not have a kinder or
more partial advocate of what truly belongs to thy honor and happiness
than my own heart."

As the daughter of Melchior de Willading concluded, she extended her hand
with affection to the young man, who pressed it against his breast with
manly tenderness, when he slowly and reluctantly withdrew.



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