By Honore De Balzac
Translated by 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 silver.
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 bath.
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 Leganes.
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
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 the regulations.
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
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 ocean.
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 arrow.
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
"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
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
"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 fulfilled."
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
"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 scolded her.
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 calm.
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 faltering.
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
"The general grants your life if you will marry me," he said to her in a
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
"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
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 Juanito,—
"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 senseless.
"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
"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