Honore de Balzac
Etext prepared by John Bickers, firstname.lastname@example.org
and Dagny, email@example.com
HONORE DE BALZAC
Katharine Prescott Wormeley
To Martinez de la Rosa.
The clock of the little town of Menda had just struck midnight. At
that moment a young French officer, leaning on the parapet of a long
terrace which bordered the gardens of the chateau de Menda, seemed
buried in thoughts that were deeper than comported with the light-
hearted carelessness of military life; though it must be said that
never were hour, scene, or night more propitious for meditation. The
beautiful sky of Spain spread its dome of azure above his head. The
scintillation of the stars and the soft light of the moon illumined
the delightful valley that lay at his feet. Resting partly against an
orange-tree in bloom, the young major could see, three hundred feet
below him, the town of Menda, at the base of the rock on which the
castle is built. Turning his head, he looked down upon the sea, the
sparkling waters of which encircled the landscape with a sheet of
The chateau was illuminated. The joyous uproar of a ball, the sounds
of an orchestra, the laughter of the dancers came to him, mingling
with the distant murmur of the waves. The coolness of the night gave
fresh energy to his body, that was tired with the heat of the day.
Besides which, the gardens were planted with trees so balmy and
flowers so sweet, that the young man felt as if plunged in a perfumed
The chateau de Menda belonged to a grandee of Spain, who was at this
time living there with his family. During the whole evening, the
eldest daughter had looked at the young officer with an interest
expressing extreme sadness, and such implied compassion on the part of
a Spaniard might well have caused the reverie of the Frenchman. Clara
was beautiful; and though she had three brothers and one sister, the
wealth of the Marquis de Leganes seemed sufficient to justify Victor
Marchand in believing that the young lady would be richly dowered. But
could he dare to believe that the daughter of the proudest noble in
Spain would be given to the son of a Parisian grocer? Besides,
Frenchmen were hated. The marquis having been suspected by General
G--t--r, who governed the province, of preparing an insurrection in
favor of Ferdinand VII., the battalion commanded by Victor Marchand
was quartered in the little town of Menda, to hold in check the
neighboring districts, which were under the control of the Marquis de
A recent despatch from Marechal Ney made it seem probable that the
English would soon land a force upon the coast; and he mentioned the
marquis as the man who was believed to be in communication with the
cabinet of London. Thus, in spite of the cordial welcome which that
Spaniard had given to Victor Marchand and his soldiers, the young
officer held himself perpetually on his guard. As he came from the
ballroom to the terrace, intending to cast his eye upon the state of
the town and the outlying districts confided to his care, he asked
himself how he ought to interpret the good will which the marquis
never failed to show him, and whether the fears of his general were
warranted by the apparent tranquillity of the region. But no sooner
had he reached the terrace than these thoughts were driven from his
mind by a sense of prudence, and also by natural curiosity.
He saw in the town a great number of lights. Although it was the feast
of Saint James, he had, that very morning, ordered that all lights
should be put out at the hour prescribed in the army regulations,
those of the chateau alone excepted. He saw, it is true, the bayonets
of his soldiers gleaming here and there at their appointed posts; but
the silence was solemn, and nothing indicated that the Spaniards were
disregarding his orders in the intoxication of a fete. Endeavoring to
explain to himself this culpable and deliberate infraction of rules on
the part of the inhabitants, it struck him as the more
incomprehensible because he had left a number of officers in charge of
patrols who were to make their rounds during the night, and enforce
With the impetuosity of youth, he was about to spring through an
opening in the terrace wall, and descend by the rocks more rapidly
than by the usual road to a little outpost which he had placed at the
entrance of the town, on the side toward the chateau, when a slight
noise arrested him. He fancied he heard the light step of a woman on
the gravelled path behind him. He turned his head and saw no one, but
his eyes were caught by an extraordinary light upon the ocean.
Suddenly he beheld a sight so alarming that he stood for a moment
motionless with surprise, fancying that his senses were mistaken. The
white rays of the moonlight enabled him to distinguish sails at some
distance. He tried to convince himself that this vision was an optical
delusion caused by the caprices of the waves and the moon. At that
moment, a hoarse voice uttered his name. He looked toward the opening
in the wall, and saw the head of the orderly who had accompanied him
to the chateau rising cautiously through it.
"Is it you, commander?"
"Yes. What is it?" replied the young man, in a low voice, a sort of
presentiment warning him to act mysteriously.
"Those rascals are squirming like worms," said the man; "and I have
come, if you please, to tell you my little observations."
"I have just followed from the chateau a man with a lantern who is
coming this way. A lantern is mightily suspicious! I don't believe
that Christian has any call to go and light the church tapers at this
time of night. They want to murder us! said I to myself, so I followed
his heels; and I've discovered, commander, close by here, on a pile of
rock, a great heap of fagots--he's after lighting a beacon of some
kind up here, I'll be bound--"
A terrible cry echoing suddenly through the town stopped the soldier's
speech. A brilliant light illuminated the young officer. The poor
orderly was shot in the head and fell. A fire of straw and dry wood
blazed up like a conflagration not thirty feet distant from the young
commander. The music and the laughter ceased in the ballroom. The
silence of death, broken only by moans, succeeded to the joyous sounds
of a festival. A single cannon-shot echoed along the plain of the
A cold sweat rolled from the officer's brow. He wore no sword. He was
confident that his soldiers were murdered, and that the English were
about to disembark. He saw himself dishonored if he lived, summoned
before a council of war to explain his want of vigilance; then he
measured with his eye the depths of the descent, and was springing
towards it when Clara's hand seized his.
"Fly!" she said; "my brothers are following me to kill you. Your
soldiers are killed. Escape yourself. At the foot of the rock, over
there, see! you will find Juanito's barb--Go, go!"
She pushed him; but the stupefied young man looked at her, motionless,
for a moment. Then, obeying the instinct of self-preservation which
never abandons any man, even the strongest, he sprang through the park
in the direction indicated, running among the rocks where goats alone
had hitherto made their way. He heard Clara calling to her brothers to
pursue him; he heard the steps of his murderers; he heard the balls of
several muskets whistling about his ears; but he reached the valley,
found the horse, mounted him, and disappeared with the rapidity of an
A few hours later the young officer reached the headquarters of
General G--t--r, whom he found at dinner with his staff.
"I bring you my head!" cried the commander of the lost battalion as he
entered, pale and overcome.
He sat down and related the horrible occurrence. An awful silence
followed his tale.
"I think you were more unfortunate than criminal," replied the
terrible general, when at last he spoke. "You are not responsible for
the crime of those Spaniards; and, unless the marshal should think
otherwise, I absolve you."
These words gave but a feeble consolation to the unhappy officer.
"But when the emperor hears of it!" he cried.
"He will want to have you shot," said the general; "but we will see
about that. Now," he added in a stern tone, "not another word of this,
except to turn it into a vengeance which shall impress with salutary
terror a people who make war like savages."
An hour later a whole regiment, a detachment of cavalry, and a battery
of artillery were on their way to Menda. The general and Victor
marched at the head of the column. The soldiers, informed of the
massacre of their comrades, were possessed by fury. The distance which
separated the town of Menda from general headquarters, was marched
with marvellous rapidity. On the way, the general found all the
villages under arms. Each of the wretched hamlets was surrounded, and
the inhabitants decimated.
By one of those fatalities which are inexplicable, the British ships
lay to without advancing. It was known later that these vessels
carried the artillery, and had outsailed the rest of the transports.
Thus the town of Menda, deprived of the support it expected, and which
the appearance of the British fleet in the offing had led the
inhabitants to suppose was at hand, was surrounded by French troops
almost without a blow being struck. The people of the town, seized
with terror, offered to surrender at discretion. With a spirit of
devotion not rare in the Peninsula, the slayers of the French
soldiery, fearing, from the cruelty of their commander, that Menda
would be given to the flames, and the whole population put to the
sword, proposed to the general to denounce themselves. He accepted
their offer, making a condition that the inhabitants of the chateau,
from the marquis to the lowest valet, should be delivered into his
hands. This condition being agreed to, the general proceeded to pardon
the rest of the population, and to prevent his soldiers from pillaging
the town or setting fire to it. An enormous tribute was levied, and
the wealthiest inhabitants held prisoner to secure payment of it,
which payment was to be made within twenty-four hours.
The general took all precautions necessary for the safety of his
troops, and provided for the defence of the region from outside
attack, refusing to allow his soldiers to be billeted in the houses.
After putting them in camp, he went up to the chateau and took
possession of it. The members of the Leganes family and their servants
were bound and kept under guard in the great hall where the ball had
taken place. The windows of this room commanded the terrace which
overhung the town. Headquarters were established in one of the
galleries, where the general held, in the first place, a council as to
the measures that should be taken to prevent the landing of the
British. After sending an aide-de-camp to Marechal Ney, and having
ordered batteries to certain points along the shore, the general and
his staff turned their attention to the prisoners. Two hundred
Spaniards who had delivered themselves up were immediately shot. After
this military execution, the general ordered as many gibbets planted
on the terrace as there were members of the family of Leganes, and he
sent for the executioner of the town.
Victor Marchand took advantage of the hour before dinner, to go and
see the prisoners. Before long he returned to the general.
"I have come," he said in a voice full of feeling, "to ask for mercy."
"You!" said the general, in a tone of bitter irony.
"Alas!" replied Victor, "it is only a sad mercy. The marquis, who has
seen those gibbets set up, hopes that you will change that mode of
execution. He asks you to behead his family, as befits nobility."
"So be it," replied the general.
"They also ask for religious assistance, and to be released from their
bonds; they promise in return to make no attempt to escape."
"I consent," said the general; "but I make you responsible for them."
"The marquis offers you his whole fortune, if you will consent to
pardon one of his sons."
"Really!" exclaimed the general. "His property belongs already to King
He stopped. A thought, a contemptuous thought, wrinkled his brow, and
he said presently,--
"I will surpass his wishes. I comprehend the importance of his last
request. Well, he shall buy the continuance of his name and lineage,
but Spain shall forever connect with it the memory of his treachery
and his punishment. I will give life and his whole fortune to
whichever of his sons will perform the office of executioner on the
rest. Go; not another word to me on the subject."
Dinner was served. The officers satisfied an appetite sharpened by
exertion. A single one of them, Victor Marchand, was not at the feast.
After hesitating long, he returned to the hall where the proud family
of Leganes were prisoners, casting a mournful look on the scene now
presented in that apartment where, only two nights before, he had seen
the heads of the two young girls and the three young men turning
giddily in the waltz. He shuddered as he thought how soon they would
fall, struck off by the sabre of the executioner.
Bound in their gilded chairs, the father and mother, the three sons,
and the two daughters, sat rigid in a state of complete immobility.
Eight servants stood near them, their arms bound behind their backs.
These fifteen persons looked at one another gravely, their eyes
scarcely betraying the sentiments that filled their souls. The
sentinels, also motionless, watched them, but respected the sorrow of
those cruel enemies.
An expression of inquiry came upon the faces of all when Victor
appeared. He gave the order to unbind the prisoners, and went himself
to unfasten the cords that held Clara in her chair. She smiled sadly.
The officer could not help touching softly the arms of the young girl
as he looked with sad admiration at her beautiful hair and her supple
figure. She was a true Spaniard, having the Spanish complexion, the
Spanish eyes with their curved lashes, and their large pupils blacker
than a raven's wing.
"Have you succeeded?" she said, with one of those funereal smiles in
which something of girlhood lingers.
Victor could not keep himself from groaning. He looked in turn at the
three brothers, and then at Clara. One brother, the eldest, was thirty
years of age. Though small and somewhat ill-made, with an air that was
haughty and disdainful, he was not lacking in a certain nobility of
manner, and he seemed to have something of that delicacy of feeling
which made the Spanish chivalry of other days so famous. He was named
Juanito. The second son, Felipe, was about twenty years of age; he
resembled Clara. The youngest was eight. A painter would have seen in
the features of Manuelo a little of that Roman constancy that David
has given to children in his republican pages. The head of the old
marquis, covered with flowing white hair, seemed to have escaped from
a picture of Murillo. As he looked at them, the young officer shook
his head, despairing that any one of those four beings would accept
the dreadful bargain of the general. Nevertheless, he found courage to
reveal it to Clara.
The girl shuddered for a moment; then she recovered her calmness, and
went to her father, kneeling at his feet.
"Oh!" she said to him, "make Juanito swear that he will obey,
faithfully, the orders that you will give him, and our wishes will be
The marquise quivered with hope. But when, leaning against her
husband, she heard the horrible confidence that Clara now made to him,
the mother fainted. Juanito, on hearing the offer, bounded like a lion
in his cage.
Victor took upon himself to send the guard away, after obtaining from
the marquis a promise of absolute submission. The servants were
delivered to the executioner, who hanged them.
When the family were alone, with no one but Victor to watch them, the
old father rose.
"Juanito!" he said.
Juanito answered only with a motion of his head that signified
refusal, falling back into his chair, and looking at his parents with
dry and awful eyes. Clara went up to him with a cheerful air and sat
upon his knee.
"Dear Juanito," she said, passing her arm around his neck and kissing
his eyelids, "if you knew how sweet death would seem to me if given by
you! Think! I should be spared the odious touch of an executioner. You
would save me from all the woes that await me--and, oh! dear Juanito!
you would not have me belong to any one--therefore--"
Her velvet eyes cast gleams of fire at Victor, as if to rouse in the
heart of Juanito his hatred of the French.
"Have courage," said his brother Felipe; "otherwise our race, our
almost royal race, must die extinct."
Suddenly Clara rose, the group that had formed about Juanito
separated, and the son, rebellious with good reason, saw before him
his old father standing erect, who said in solemn tones,--
"Juanito, I command you to obey."
The young count remained immovable. Then his father knelt at his feet.
Involuntarily Clara, Felipe, and Manuelo imitated his action. They all
stretched out their hands to him, who was to save the family from
extinction, and each seemed to echo the words of the father.
"My son, can it be that you would fail in Spanish energy and true
feeling? Will you leave me longer on my knees? Why do you consider
YOUR life, YOUR sufferings only? Is this my son?" he added, turning to
"He consents!" cried the mother, in despair, seeing a motion of
Juanito's eyelids, the meaning of which was known to her alone.
Mariquita, the second daughter, was on her knees pressing her mother
in her feeble arms, and as she wept hot tears her little brother
At this moment the chaplain of the chateau entered the hall; the
family instantly surrounded him and led him to Juanito. Victor, unable
to endure the scene any longer, made a sign to Clara, and went away,
determined to make one more attempt upon the general.
He found him in fine good-humour, in the midst of a banquet, drinking
with his officers, who were growing hilarious.
An hour later, one hundred of the leading inhabitants of Menda
assembled on the terrace, according to the orders of the general, to
witness the execution of the Leganes family. A detachment of soldiers
were posted to restrain the Spaniards, stationed beneath the gallows
on which the servants had been hanged. The heads of the burghers
almost touched the feet of these martyrs. Thirty feet from this group
was a block, and on it glittered a scimitar. An executioner was
present in case Juanito refused his obedience at the last moment.
Soon the Spaniards heard, in the midst of the deepest silence, the
steps of many persons, the measured sound of the march of soldiers,
and the slight rattle of their accoutrements. These noises mingled
with the gay laughter of the officers, as a few nights earlier the
dances of a ball had served to mask the preparations for a bloody
treachery. All eyes turned to the chateau and saw the noble family
advancing with inconceivable composure. Their faces were serene and
One member alone, pale, undone, leaned upon the priest, who spent his
powers of religious consolation upon this man,--the only one who was
to live. The executioner knew, as did all present, that Juanito had
agreed to accept his place for that one day. The old marquis and his
wife, Clara, Mariquita, and the two younger brothers walked forward
and knelt down a few steps distant from the fatal block. Juanito was
led forward by the priest. When he reached the place the executioner
touched him on the arm and gave him, probably, a few instructions. The
confessor, meantime, turned the victims so that they might not see the
fatal blows. But, like true Spaniards, they stood erect without
Clara was the first to come forward.
"Juanito," she said, "have pity on my want of courage; begin with me."
At this instant the hurried steps of a man were heard, and Victor
Marchand appeared on the terrace. Clara was already on her knees, her
white neck bared for the scimitar. The officer turned pale, but he ran
with all his might.
"The general grants your life if you will marry me," he said to her in
a low voice.
The Spanish girl cast upon the officer a look of pride and contempt.
"Go on, Juanito!" she said, in a deep voice, and her head rolled at
The Marquise de Leganes made one convulsive movement as she heard that
sound; it was the only sign she gave of sorrow.
"Am I placed right this way, my good Juanito?" asked the little
Manuelo of his brother.
"Ah! you are weeping, Mariquita!" said Juanito to his sister.
"Yes," she said, "I think of you, my poor Juanito; how lonely you will
be without us."
Soon the grand figure of the marquis came forward. He looked at the
blood of his children; he turned to the mute and motionless
spectators, and said in a strong voice, stretching his hands toward
"Spaniards! I give my son my fatherly blessing! Now, MARQUIS, strike,
without fear--you are without reproach."
But when Juanito saw his mother approach him, supported by the priest,
he cried out: "She bore me!"
A cry of horror broke from all present. The noise of the feast and the
jovial laughter of the officers ceased at that terrible clamor. The
marquise comprehended that Juanito's courage was exhausted, and
springing with one bound over the parapet, she was dashed to pieces on
the rocks below. A sound of admiration rose. Juanito had fallen
"General," said an officer, who was half drunk, "Marchand has just
told me the particulars of that execution down there. I will bet you
never ordered it."
"Do you forget, messieurs," cried General G--t--r, "that five hundred
French families are plunged in affliction, and that we are now in
Spain? Do you wish to leave our bones in its soil?"
After that allocution, no one, not even a sub-lieutenant, had the
courage to empty his glass.
In spite of the respect with which he is surrounded, in spite of the
title El Verdugo (the executioner) which the King of Spain bestowed as
a title of nobility on the Marquis de Leganes, he is a prey to sorrow;
he lives in solitude, and is seldom seen. Overwhelmed with the burden
of his noble crime, he seems to await with impatience the birth of a
second son, which will give him the right to rejoin the Shades who
ceaselessly accompany him.
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