Chapter 25





------Hadst thou not been by,
A fellow by the hand of nature mark'd,
Noted, and sign'd to do a deed of shame,
This murder had not come into my mind.

Shakspeare.


The arrival of Sigismund's party at the hospice preceded that of the other
travellers more than an hour. They were received with the hospitality with
which all were then welcomed at this celebrated convent; the visits of the
curious and the vulgar not having blunted the benevolence of the monks,
who, mostly accustomed to entertain the low-born and ignorant, were always
happy to relieve the monotony of their solitude by intercourse with guests
of a superior class. The good clavier had prepared the way for their
reception; for even on the wild ridge of St. Bernard, we do not fare the
worse for carrying with us a prestige of that rank and consideration that
are enjoyed in the world below. Although a mild Christian-like good-will
were manifested to all, the heiress of Willading, a name that was
generally known and honored between the Alps and the Jura, met with those
proofs of _empressement_ and deference which betray the secret thought, in
despite of conventional forms and which told her, plainer than the words
of welcome, that the retired Augustines were not sorry to see so fair and
so noble a specimen of their species within their dreary walls.

All this, however, was lost on Sigismund. He was too much occupied with
the events of the morning to note other things; and, first committing
Adelheid and his sister to the care of their women, he went into the open
air in order to await the arrival of the rest.

As it has been mentioned, the existence of the venerable convent of St.
Bernard dates from a very remote period of Christianity. It stands on the
very brow of the precipice which forms the last steep ascent in mounting
to the Col. The building is a high, narrow, but vast, barrack-looking
edifice, built of the ferruginous stone of the region, having its gable
placed toward the Valais, and its front stretching in the direction of the
gorge in which it stands. Immediately before its principal door, the rock
rises in an ill-shapen hillock, across which runs the path to Italy. This
is literally the highest point of the pass, as the building itself is the
most elevated habitable abode in Europe. At this spot, the distance from
rock to rock, spanning the gorge, may be a hundred yards, the wild and
reddish piles rising on each side for more than a thousand feet. These are
merely dwarfs, however, among their sister piles, several of which, in
plain view of the convent, reach to the height of eternal snow. This point
in the road attained, the path began immediately to descend, and the
drippings of a snow-bank before the convent door, which had resisted the
greatest heat of the past summer, ran partly into the valley of the Rhone,
and partly into Piedmont; the waters, after a long and devious course
through the plains of France and Italy, meeting again in the common basin
of the Mediterranean. The path, on quitting the convent, runs between the
base of the rocks on its right and a little limpid lake on its left, the
latter occupying nearly the entire cavity of the valley of the gorge. It
then disappears between natural palisades of rock, at the other extremity
of the Col. This is the point where the superfluous waters of the lake
find their outlet, descending swiftly, in a brawling little brook, on the
sunny side of the Alps. The frontier of Italy is met on the margin of the
lake, a long musket-shot from the abode of the Augustines, and near the
site of a temple that the Romans had raised in honor of Jupiter, in his
attribute of director of storms.

Such was the outline of the view which presented itself to Sigismund, when
he left the building to while away the time that must necessarily elapse
before the arrival of the rest of the party. The hour was still early,
though the great altitude of the site of the convent had brought it
beneath the influence of the sun's rays an hour before. He had learned
from a servant of the Augustines, that a number of ordinary travellers, of
whom in the fine season hundreds at a time frequently passed the night in
their dormitories, were now breaking their fasts in the refectory of the
peasants, and he was willing to avoid the questions that their curiosity
might prompt when they came to hear what had occurred lower down on the
mountain. One of the brotherhood was caressing four or five enormous
mastiffs, that were leaping about and barking with deep throats in front
of the convent, while old Uberto moved among them with a gravity and
respect that better suited his years. Perceiving his guest, the Augustine
quitted the dogs, and, lifting his eastern-looking cap, he gave him the
salutation of the morning. Sigismund met the frank smile of the canon, who
like himself was young with a fit return. The occasion was such as
Sigismund desired, and a friendly discourse succeeded while they paced
along the margin of the lake, holding the path that leads across the Col.

"You are young in your charitable office, brother," remarked the soldier,
when familiarity was a little established. "This will be among the first
of the winters you will have passed at your benevolent post?"

"It will make the eighth, as novice and as canon. We are early trained to
this kind of life, though no practice will enable any of us to withstand
the effect which the thin air and intense cold produce on the lungs many
winters in succession. We go down to Martigny when there is occasion, and
breathe an atmosphere better suited to man. Thou hadst an angry storm
below, the past night?"

"So angry, that we thank God it is over, and that we are left to share
your hospitality. Were there many on the mountain besides ourselves, or
did any come up from Italy?"

"There were none but those who are now in the common refectory, and none
came from Aoste. The season for the traveller is over. This is a month in
which we see only those who are much pressed, and who have their reasons
for trusting the weather. In the summer we sometimes lodge a thousand
guests."

"They whom ye receive have reason to be thankful, reverend Augustine; for,
in sooth, this does not seem a region that abounds in its fruits."

Sigismund and the monk looked around at the vast piles of ragged naked
rocks, and they smiled as their eyes met.

"Nature gives literally nothing," answered the Augustine: "even the fuel
that warms us is transported leagues on the backs of mules, and thou wilt
readily conceive that of all others this is a necessary we cannot forego.
Happily, we have some of our ancient, and what were once rich, endowments;
and--"

The young canon hesitated to proceed.

"You were about to say, father, that they who have the means to show
gratitude are not always unmindful of the wants of those, who share the
same hospitality without possessing the same ability to manifest their
respect for the institution."

The Augustine bowed, and he turned the discourse by pointing out the
frontiers of Italy, and the site of the ancient temple; both of which they
had this time reached. An animal moved among the rocks, and attracted
their attention.

"Can it be a chamois!" exclaimed Sigismund, whose blood began to quicken
with a hunter's eagerness: "I would I had arms!"

"It is a dog, though not of our mountain breed! The mastiffs of the
convent have failed in hospitality, and the poor beast has been driven to
take refuge in this retired spot, in waiting for his master, who probably
makes one of the party in the refectory. See, they come; their approaching
footsteps have brought the cautious animal from his cover."

Sigismund saw, in truth, that a party of three pedestrians was quitting
the convent, taking the path for Italy. A sudden and painful suspicion
flashed upon his mind. The dog was Nettuno, most probably driven by the
mastiffs, as the monk had suggested, to seek a shelter in this retreat;
and one of those who approached, by his gait and stature was no other than
his master.

"Thou knowest, father," he said, with a clammy tongue, for he was
strangely agitated between reluctance to accuse Maso of such a crime, and
horror at the fate of Jacques Colis, "that there has been a murder on the
mountain?"

The monk quietly assented. One who lived on that road, and in that age,
was not easily excited by an event of so frequent occurrence. Sigismund
hastily recounted to his companion all the circumstances that were then
known to himself, and related the manner in which he had first met the
Italian on the lake, and his general impressions concerning his character.

"All come and go unquestioned here;" returned the Augustine, when the
other had ended. "Our convent has been founded in charity, and we pray for
the sinner without inquiring into the amount of his crime. Still we have
authority, and it is especially our duty, to keep the road clear that our
own purposes may not be defeated. I leave thee to do what thou judgest
most prudent and proper in a matter so delicate."

Sigismund was silent; but as the pedestrians were drawing near, his
resolution was soon and sternly formed. The obligations that he owed to
Maso made him more prompt, for it excited a jealous distrust of his own
powers to discharge what he conceived to be a duty. Even those late events
in which his sister was so wronged had their share, too, on the decision
of a mind so resolute to be upright. Placing himself in the middle of the
path, he awaited the arrival of the party, while the monk stood quietly at
his side. When the travellers were within speaking distance, the young man
first discovered that the companions of Il Maledetto were Pippo and
Conrad. Their several rencontres had made him sufficiently acquainted with
the persons of the two latter, to enable him to recognize them at a
glance; and Sigismund began to think the undertaking in which he had
embarked more grave than he had at first imagined. Should there be a
disposition to resist, he was but one against three.

"Buon giorno, Signor Capitano," cried Maso, saluting with his cap, when
sufficiently near to those who occupied the path; "we meet often, and in
all weathers; by day and by night; on the land and on the water; in the
valley and on the mountain; in the city and on this naked rock, as
Providence wills. As many chances try men's characters, we shall come to
know each other in time!"

"Thou hast well observed, Maso; though I fear thou art a man oftener met
than easily understood."

"Signore, I am amphibious, like Nettuno here, being part of the earth and
part of the sea. As the learned say, I am not yet classed. We are repaid
for an evil night by a fine day; and the descent into Italy will be
pleasanter than we found the coming up. Shall I order honest Giacomo of
Aoste to prepare the supper, and to air the beds for the noble company
that is to follow? You will scarce do more than reach his holstery before
the young and the beautiful will begin to think of their pillows."

"Maso, I had thought thee among our party, when I left the Refuge this
morning?"

"By San Thomaso! Signore, but I had the same opinion touching yourself!"

"Thou wert early afoot it would seem, or thou couldst not have so much
preceded me?"

"Look you, brave Signor Sigismondo, for brave I know you to be, and in the
water a swimmer little less determined than gallant Nettuno there--I am a
traveller, and have much need of my time which is the larger portion of my
property. We sea-animals are sometimes rich and sometimes poor, as the
wind happens to blow, and of late I have been driven to struggle with foul
gales and troubled waves. To such a man, an hour of industry in the
mornings often gives a heartier meal and sweeter rest at night. I left
you all in the Refuge sleeping soundly, even to the mules,"--Maso laughed
at his own fancies, as he included the brutes in the party,--"and I
reached the convent just as the first touch of the sun tipped yonder white
peak with its purple light."

"As thou left'st us so early, thou mayest not have heard, then, that the
body of a murdered man was found in the bone-house--the building near that
in which we slept--and that it is the body of one known?"

Sigismund spoke firmly and deliberately, as if he would come by degrees to
his purpose, while, at the same time, he made the other sensible of his
being in earnest. Maso started. He made a movement so unequivocally like
one which would have manifested an intention to proceed, that the young
man raised his hand to repulse him. But violence was unnecessary, for the
mariner instantly became composed, and seemingly more disposed to listen.

"Where there has been a crime, Maso, there must have been a criminal!"

"The Bishop of Sion could not have made truth clearer to the sinner than
yourself, Signor Sigismondo! Your manner leads me to ask what I have to do
with this?"

"There has been a murder, Maso, and the murderer is sought. The dead was
found near the spot where thou passed the night; I shall not conceal the
unhappy suspicions that are so natural."

"Diamine! where did you pass the night yourself, brave Capitano, if I may
be so bold as to question my superior? Where did the noble Baron de
Willading take his rest, and his fair daughter and one nobler and more
illustrious than he, and Pierre the guide, and--ay, and our friends, the
mules again?"

Maso laughed recklessly once more, as he made this second allusion to the
patient brutes. Sigismund disliked his levity, which he thought forced and
unnatural.

"This reasoning may satisfy thee, unfortunate man, but it will not satisfy
others. Thou wert alone, but we travelled in company; judging from thy
exterior, thou art but little favored by fortune, Whereas we are more
happy in this particular; and thou hast been, and art still, in haste to
depart, while the discovery of the foul deed is owing to us alone. Thou
must return to the convent, that this grave matter may, at least, be
examined."

Il Maledetto seemed troubled. Once or twice he glanced his eye at the
quiet athletic frame of the young man, and then turned them on the path in
reflection. Although Sigismund narrowly watched the workings of his
countenance, giving a little of his attention also, from time to time, to
the movements of Pippo and the pilgrim, he preserved himself a perfectly
calm exterior. Firm in his purpose, accustomed to make extraordinary
exertions in his manly exercises, and conscious of his great physical
force, he was not a man to be easily daunted. It is true that the
companions of Maso conducted themselves in a way to excite no additional
apprehensions on their account; for, on the announcement of the murder,
they moved away from his person a little, as by a natural horror of the
hand that could have done the deed. They now consulted together, and
profiting by their situation behind the back of the Italian, they made
signs to Sigismund of their readiness to assist should it be necessary. He
received the signal writh satisfaction; for, though he knew them to be
knaves, he sufficiently understood the difference between audacious crime
and mere roguery to believe they might, in this instance at least, prove
true.

"Thou wilt return to the convent, Maso," resumed the young soldier, who
would gladly avoid a struggle with a man who had done him and those he
loved so much service, though resolved to discharge what he conceived to
be an imperious duty: "this pilgrim and his friend will be of our party,
in order that, when we quit the mountain, all may leave it blameless and
unsuspected."

"Signor Sigismondo, the proposal is fair; it has a touch of reason, I
allow; but unluckily it does not suit my interests. I am engaged in a
delicate mission, and too much time has been already lost by the way to
waste more without good cause. I have great pity for poor Jacques Colis--"

"Ha! thou knowest the sufferer's name, then; thy unlucky tongue hath
betrayed thee, Maso"

Il Maledetto was again troubled. His features betrayed it, for he frowned
like a man who had committed a grave fault in a matter touching an
important interest. His olive complexion changed, and his interrogator
thought that his eye quailed before his own fixed look. But the emotion
was transient, and shuddering, as if to shake off a weakness, his
appearance became once more natural and composed.

"Thou makest no reply?"

"Signore, you have my answer; affairs press, and my visit to the convent
of San Bernardo has been made. I am bound to Aoste, and should be happy to
do your bidding with the worthy Giacomo. I have but a step to make to find
myself in the dominions of the house of Savoy; and, with your leave,
gallant Capitano, I will now take it."

Maso moved a little aside with the intention to pass Sigismund, when Pippo
and Conrad threw themselves on him from behind, pinning his arms to his
sides by main force. The face of the Italian grew livid, and he smiled
with the contempt and hatred of an inveterately angered man. Assembling
all his force, he suddenly exerted it with the energy and courage of a
lion, shouting--

"Nettuno!"

The struggle was short but fierce. When it terminated, Pippo lay bleeding
among the rocks with a broken head, and the pilgrim was gasping near him
under the tremendous gripe of the animal. Maso himself stood firm, though
pale and frowning like one who had collected all his energies, both
physical and moral, to meet this emergency.

"Am I a brute, to be set upon by the scum of the earth?" he cried: "if
thou wouldst aught with me, Signor Sigismondo, raise thine own arm, but
strike not with the hands of these base reptiles; thou wilt find me a man,
in strength and courage, at least not unworthy of thyself."

"The attack on thy person, Maso, was not made by my order, nor by my
desire," returned Sigismund, reddening. "I believe myself sufficient to
arrest thee; and, if not, here come assistants that thou wilt scarce deem
it prudent to resist."

The Augustine had stepped on a rock the moment the struggle commenced,
whence he made a signal which brought all the mastiffs from the convent.
These powerful animals now arrived in a group, apprized by their instinct
that strife was afoot. Nettuno immediately released the pilgrim and stood
at bay; too faithful to desert his master in his need, and yet too
conscious of the force opposed to him to court a contest so unequal.
Luckily for the noble dog, the friendship of old Uberto proved his
protection. When the younger animals saw their patriarch disposed to
amity, they forbore their attack, waiting at least for another signal to
be given. In the mean while, Maso had time to look about him, and to form
his decision less under the influence of surprise and feeling than had
been previously the case.

"Signore," he answered, "since it is your pleasure, I will return among
the Augustines. But I ask, as simple justice, that, if I am to be hunted
by dogs as a beast of prey, all who were in the same circumstances as
myself may become subject to the same rule. This pilgrim and the
Neapolitan came up the mountain yesterday, as well as myself, and I demand
their arrest until they too can give an account of themselves. It will not
be the first time that we have been inhabitants of the same prison."

Conrad crossed himself in submission, neither he nor Pippo raising any
objection to the step. On the contrary, each frankly admitted it was no
more than equitable on its face.

"We are poor travellers on whom many accidents have already alighted, and
we may well be pressed to reach the end of our journey," said the pilgrim;
"but, that justice may be done, we shall submit without a murmur. I am
loaded with the sins of many besides my own, however, and St. Peter he
knows that the last are not light. This holy canon will see that masses
are said in the convent chapel in behalf of those for whom I travel; this
duty done, I am an infant in your hands."

The good Augustine professed the perfect readiness of the fraternity to
pray for all who were in necessity, with the single proviso that they
should be Christians. With this amicable understanding then, the peace was
made between them, and the parties immediately took the path that led back
to the convent. On reaching the building, Maso, with the two travellers
who had been found in his company, were; laced in safe keeping in one of
the of the solid edifice, until the return of the clavier should enable
them to vindicate their innocence.

Satisfied with himself for the part he had acted in the late affair,
Sigismund strolled into the chapel, where, at that early hour, some of the
brother hood were always occupied in saying masses in behalf of the souls
of the living or of the dead He was here when he received a note from the
Signor Grimaldi, apprizing him of the arrest of his father, and of the
dark suspicions that were so naturally connected with the transaction. It
is unnecessary to dwell on the nature of the shock he received from this
intelligence. After a few moments of bitter anguish, he perceived the
urgency of making his sister acquainted with the truth as speedily as
possible. The arrival of the party from the Refuge was expected every
moment, and by delay he increased the risk of Christine's hearing the
appalling fact from some other quarter. He sought an audience, therefore,
with Adelheid, the instant he had summoned sufficient self-command to
undertake the duty.

Mademoiselle de Willading was struck with the pale brow and agitated air
of the young soldier, at the first glance of her eye.

"Thou hast permitted this unexpected blow to affect thee unusually,
Sigismund," she said, smiling, and offering her hand; for she felt that
the circumstances were those in which cold and heartless forms should give
place to feeling and sincerity. "Thy sister is tranquil, if not happy."

"She does not know the worst--she has yet to learn the most cruel part of
the truth. Adelheid; they have found one concealed among the dead of the
bone-house, and are now leading him here as the murderer of poor Jacques
Colis!"

"Another!" said Adelheid, turning pale in alarm "we appear to be
surrounded by assassins!"

"No, it cannot be true! I know my poor father's mildness of disposition
too well; his habitual tenderness to all around him; his horror at the
sight of blood, even for his odious task!"

"Sigismund, thy father!"

The young man groaned. Concealing his face with his hands, he sank into a
seat. The fearful truth, with all its causes and consequences, began to
dawn upon Adelheid. Sinking upon a chair herself, she sat long looking at
the convulsed and working frame of Sigismund in silent horror. It appeared
to her, that Providence, for some great but secret purpose, was disposed
to visit them all with more than a double amount of its anger, and that a
family which had been accursed for so many generations, was about to fill
the measure of its woes. Still her own true heart did not change. On the
contrary, its long-cherished and secret purpose rather grew stronger under
this sudden appeal to its generous and noble properties, and never was the
resolution to devote herself, her life, and all her envied hopes, to the
solace of his unmerited wrongs, so strong and riveted as at that trying
moment.

In a little time Sigismund regained enough self-command to be able to
commence the narrative of what had passed. They then concerted together
the best means to make Christine acquainted with that which it was
absolutely necessary she should now know.

"Tell her the simple truth," added Sigismund, 'it cannot long be
concealed, and it were better that she knew it; but tell her, also, my
firm dependence on our father's innocence. God, for one of those
inscrutable purposes which set human intelligence at defiance, has made
him a common executioner, but the curse has not extended to his nature.
Trust me, dearest Adelheid, a more gentle dove-like nature does not exist
in man than that of the poor Balthazar--the despised and persecuted
Balthazar. I have heard my mother dwell upon the nights of anguish and
suffering that have preceded the day on which the duties of his office
were to be discharged; and often have I heard that admirable woman, whose
spirit is far more equal to support our unmerited fortunes, declare she
has often prayed that he and all that are hers might die, so that they
died innocently, rather than one of a temper so gentle and harmless should
again be brought to endure the agony she had witnessed!"

"It is unhappy that he should be here at so luckless a moment! What
unhappy motive can have led thy father to this spot, at a time so extra
ordinary?"

"Christine will tell thee that she expected to see him at the convent. We
are a race proscribed, Mademoiselle de Willading, but we are human."

"Dearest Sigismund--"

"I feel my injustice, and can only pray to be forgiven. But there are
moments of feeling so intense, that I am ready to believe and treat all of
my species as common enemies. Christine is an only daughter, and thou
thyself, beloved Adelheid, kind, dutiful, and good as I know thee to be,
art not more dear to the Baron de Willading than my poor sister is among
us. Her parents have yielded her to thy generous kindness, for they
believe it for her good; but their hearts have been wrung by the
separation. Thou didst not know it, but Christine took her last embrace of
her mother here on the mountain, at Liddes, and it was then agreed that
her father should watch her in safety over the Col, and bestow the final
blessing at Aoste. Mademoiselle de Willading, you move in pride,
surrounded by many protectors, who are honored in doing you service; but
the abased and the hunted must indulge even their best affections
stealthily, and without obtrusion! The love and tenderness of Balthazar
would pass for mockery with the vulgar! Such is man in his habits and
opinions, when wrong usurps the place of right."

Adelheid saw that the moment was not favorable for urging consolation and
she abstained from a reply. She rejoiced, however, to hear the presence of
the headsman so satisfactorily accounted for, though she could not quiet
herself from an apprehension that the universal weakness of human nature,
which so suddenly permits the perversion of the best of our passions to
the worst, and the dreadful probability that Balthazar, suffering
intensely by this compelled separation from his daughter, on accidentally
encountering the man who was its cause, might have listened to some
violent impulse of resentment and revenge. She saw also that Sigismund, in
despite of his general confidence in the principles of his father, had
fearful glimmerings of some such event, and that he fearfully anticipated
the worst, even while he most professed confidence in the innocence of the
accused. The interview was soon ended, and they separated; each
endeavoring to invent plausible reasons for what had happened.

The arrival of the party from the refuge took place soon afterwards. It
was followed by the necessary explanations, and a more detailed narrative
of all that had passed. A consultation was held between the chiefs of the
brotherhood and the two old nobles, and the course it was most expedient
to pursue was calmly and prudently discussed.

The result was not known for some hours later. It was then generally
proclaimed in the convent that a grave and legal investigation of all the
facts was to take place with the least possible delay.

The Col of St. Bernard, as has been stated already, lies within the
limits of the present canton but what then the allied state of the Valais.
The crime had consequently been committed within the jurisdiction of that
country; but as the Valais was thus leagued with Switzerland, there
existed such an intimate understanding between the two, that it was rare
any grave proceedings were had against a citizen of either in the dominion
of the other, without paying great deference to the feelings and the
rights of the country of the accused. Messengers were therefore dispatched
to Vévey, to inform the authorities of that place of a transaction which
involved the safety of an officer of the great canton, (for such was
Balthazar,) and which had cost a citizen of Vaud his life. On the other
hand, a similar communication was sent to Sion, the two places being about
equidistant from the convent, with such pressing invitations to the
authorities to be prompt, as were deemed necessary to bring on an
immediate investigation. Melchior de Willading, in a letter to his friend
the bailiff, set forth the inconvenience of his return with Adelheid at
that late season, and the importance of the functionary's testimony, with
such other statements as were likely to effect his wishes; while the
superior of the brotherhood charged himself with making representations,
with a similar intent, to the heads of his own republic. Justice in that
age was not administered as frankly and openly as in this later period,
its agents in the old world exercising even now a discretion that we are
not accustomed to see confided to them. Her proceedings were enveloped in
darkness, the blind deity being far more known in her decrees than in her
principles, and mystery was then deemed an important auxiliary of power.

With this brief explanation we shall shift the time to the third day from
that on which the travellers reached the convent, referring the reader to
the succeeding chapter for an account of what it brought forth.



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