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shape they may, I swear to you my innocence. If ye think that fear of
punishment tempts me to utter a lie, under these holy appeals, (he crossed
himself with reverence,) ye do injustice both to my courage and to my love
of the saints. The only son of the reigning Doge of Genoa hath little to
fear from the headsman's blow!"
Again Maso laughed. It was the confidence of one who knew the world and
who was too audacious even to consult appearances unless it suited his
humor, breaking out in very wantonness. A man who had led his life, was
not to learn at this late day, that the want of eyes in Justice oftener
means blindness to the faults of the privileged, than the impartiality
that is assumed by the pretending emblem. The chatelain, the prior, the
bailiff, the clavier, and the Baron de Willading, looked at each other
like men bewildered. The mental agony of the Doge formed a contrast so
frightful with the heartless and cruel insensibility of the son, that the
sight chilled their blood. The sentiment was only the more common, from
the silent but general conviction, that the unfeeling criminal must be
permitted to escape. There was, indeed, no precedent for leading the child
of a prince to the block, unless it were for an offence which touched the
preservation of the father's interests. Much was said in maxims and
apophthegms of the purity and necessity of rigid impartiality in
administering the affairs of life, but neither had attained his years and
experience without obtaining glimpses of practical things, that taught
them to foresee the impunity of Maso. Too much violence would be done to a
factitous and tottering edifice, were it known that a prince's son was no
better than one of the vilest, and the lingering feelings of paternity
were certain at last to cast a shield before the offender.
The embarrassment and doubt attending such a state of things was happily,
but quite unexpectedly, relieved by the interference of Balthazar. The
headsman, until this moment, had been a silent and attentive listener to
all that passed; but now he pressed himself into the circle, and looking,
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in his quiet manner, from one to the other, he spoke with the assurance
that the certainty of having important intelligence to impart, is apt to
give even to the meekest, in the presence of those whom they habitually
respect.
"This broken tale of Maso," he said, "is removing a cloud that has lain,
for near thirty years before my eyes. Is it true, illustrious Doge, for
such it appears is your princely state, that a son of your noble stock
was stolen and kept in from your love, through the vindictive enmity of a
rival?"
"True!--alas, too true! Would it had pleased the blessed Maria, who so
cherished his mother, to call his spirit to Heaven, ere the curse befell
him and me!"
"Your pardon, great Prince, if I press you with questions at a moment so
painful. But it is in your own interest. Suffer that I ask in what year
this calamity befell your family?"
The Signor Grimaldi signed for his friend to assume the office of
answering these extraordinary interrogatories, while he buried his own
venerable face in his cloak, to conceal his anguish from curious eyes.
Melchior de Willading regarded the headsman in surprise, and for an
instant he was disposed to repel questions that seemed importunate; but
the earnest countenance and mild, decent demeanor of Balthazar, overcame
his repugnance to pursue the subject.
"The child was seized in the autumn of the year 1693," he answered, his
previous conferences with his friend having put him in possession of all
the leading facts of the history.
"And his age?"
"Was near a twelvemonth."
"Can you inform me what became of the profligate noble who committed this
for robbery?"
"The fate of the Signore Pantaleone Serrani has never been truly known;
though there is a dark rumor that he died in a brawl in our own
Switzerland. That he is dead, there is no cause to doubt."
"And his person, noble Freiherr--a description of his person is now only
wanting to throw the light of a noon-day sun, on what has so long been
night!"
"I knew the unlucky Signore Pantaleone in early youth. At the time
mentioned his years might have been thirty, his form was seemly and of
middle height, his features bore the Italian outline, with the dark eye,
swarthy skin and glossy hair of the climate. More than this, with the
exception of a finger lost in one of our affairs in Lombardy, I cannot
say."
"This is enough," returned the attentive Balthazar. "Dismiss your grief,
princely Doge, and prepare your heart for a new-found joy. Instead of
being the parent of this reckless freebooter, God at length pities and
returns your real son in Sigismund, a child that might gladden the heart
of any parent, though he were an emperor!"
This extraordinary declaration was made to stunned and confounded
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listeners. A cry of alarm bust from the lips of Marguerite, who approached
the group in the centre of the chapel, trembling and anxious as if the
grave were about to rob her of a treasure.
"What is this I hear!" exclaimed the mother, whose sensitiveness was the
first to take alarm. "Are my half-formed suspicions then too true,
Balthazar? Am I, indeed, without a son? I know thou wouldst not trifle
with a mother, or mislead this stricken noble in a thing like this! Speak,
again, that I may know the truth--Sigismund!--"
"Is not our child," answered the headsman, with an impress of truth in his
manner that went far to bring conviction; "our own boy died in the blessed
state of infancy, and, to save thy feelings, this youth was substituted in
his place by me without thy knowledge."
Marguerite moved nearer to the young man. She gazed wistfully at his
flushed, excited features, in which pain at being so unexpectedly torn
from the bosom of a family he had always deemed his own, was fearfully
struggling with a wild and indefinite delight at finding himself suddenly
relieved from a load he had long found so grievous to be borne.
Interpreting the latter expression with jealous affection, she bent her
face to her bosom, and retreated in silence among her companions lo weep.
In the mean time a sudden and tumultuous surprise took possession of the
different listeners, which was modified and exhibited according to their
respective characters, or to the amount of interest that each had in the
truth or falsehood of what had just been announced. The Doge clung to the
hope, improbable as it seemed, with a tenacity proportioned to his recent
anguish, while Sigismund stood like one beside himself. His eye wandered [ Pobierz całość w formacie PDF ]




 

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